WASHINGTON — In late September, a plane carrying senior Iranian officials touched down in Abu Dhabi, the gleaming capital of the United Arab Emirates.The Middle East had witnessed a summer of violence, and a meeting with the Iranians was part of a quiet strategy by Emirati leaders to defuse the tension. The small but powerful Persian Gulf nation wanted to broker a separate peace — avoiding violence that could shatter its decades-long effort to present itself as a modern, stable oasis in a volatile region.But the meeting set off alarms inside the White House, where officials learned about it only after reading reports from American spy agencies. The Emirati government, a stalwart ally that had long pushed for a hawkish American approach toward Iran, was in secret talks with Iranian officials. National Security Council officials met to discuss the implications: A united front against Iran — carefully built by the Trump administration over more than two years — seemed to be crumbling.The episode came in the midst of a nine-month period that shook up the United States’ already combustible relationship with Iran — beginning with the Trump administration’s escalation of sanctions and culminating with the two powers in a direct military confrontation on the brink of wider and bloodier conflict.
The chess match continues, with little evidence that either has a sense of the other’s next move, but with the prospect of an American president newly constrained on Iran policy. The Senate passed a resolution on Thursday requiring congressional sign-off for future military actions against Iran — a move Mr. Trump has said he would veto.
What happened over the past several months, based on interviews with officials from the United States, Iran and other Middle Eastern countries as well as outside analysts, is a story of miscalculations by both sides and of violence that spilled into nations across the Middle East — from Syria to Saudi Arabia to Iraq.