Having spent only a week at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, President Donald Trump signed an executive order imposing a wholesale ban on travelers from Iran and six other Muslim-majority nations. His rationale: fighting “radical Islamic terrorists.”

Two days later, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) carried out a ballistic missile test. The White House responded to the move with harsh and threatening language reminiscent of President George W. Bush’s approach toward Iran.

On Feb. 1, Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, in his first appearance in the White House briefing room, charged that the Obama administration “failed to respond adequately to Tehran’s malign actions” and that Iran was now “on notice.” Trump repeated the threat on Feb. 2 when he tweeted, “Iran has been formally PUT ON NOTICE for firing a ballistic missile.” A second tweet read, “Iran was on its last legs and ready to collapse until the US (Obama administration) came along and gave it a lifeline in the form of the Iran deal: $150bn.”

On Feb. 3, Trump escalated the threatening language and tweeted, “Iran is playing with fire. They don’t appreciate how ‘kind’ President Obama was to them. Not me!”

After that, Vice President Mike Pence entered the fray. He warned Iran to “think twice” before testing the Trump administration.

The Trump administration’s response went beyond bellicose language. On Feb. 3, the US blacklisted 13 individuals and a dozen businesses in connection with the Jan. 29 ballistic missile test and Iran’s alleged support for terrorism.

Reacting to this hostile position – not seen since 2013 after the election of the pragmatic Iranian president Hassan Rouhani – observers looked to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for a tough response. Khamenei traditionally reacts harshly to perceived US aggression. However, in a speech he delivered on Feb. 7 to Air Force personnel, Khamenei was surprisingly mild.  

“The new US president says Iran should thank Obama! Why should we thank him?” Khamenei said. “For creating ISIS, the ongoing wars in Iraq and Syria, or the blatant support for the 2009 sedition in Iran? He was the president who imposed paralyzing sanctions on the Iranian nation; of course, he did not achieve what he desired,” Khamenei remarked.

He added, “We actually thank this new president [Trump]! We thank him, because he made it easier for us to reveal the real face of the United States. What we have been saying, for over 30 years, about the political, economic, moral, and social corruption within the US ruling establishment, he came out and exposed during the election campaigns and after the elections.”

So far, the rhetoric and actions of the Trump administration have been a gift to Khamenei, who has sought to rally a nationalistic response among Iranians including those lukewarm about their government.

Tapping into Trump’s comments, Khamenei said, “Trump says fear me! No. The Iranian nation will respond to your comments with a demonstration on the 10th of February: they will show others what kind of stance the nation of Iran takes when threatened.”

Iranians will mark the 38th anniversary of the 1979 revolution on Feb. 10 with demonstrations most likely with staged “Death to America” chants and other anti-US slogans. 

Remarkably, Khamenei did not criticize the travel ban or new sanctions. This was despite the fact that in a letter he wrote to Rouhani shortly after the conclusion of the nuclear deal between Iran and world six powers, the leader clearly indicated that any new sanctions by “the opposing countries in the negotiations” under any pretext, including “repetitive fake excuses of support for terrorism or human rights” would void the agreement.

There are two major reasons for Khamenei’s mild reaction.

First, Trump’s anti-establishment positions and contentious critiques of corruption in the US establishment are extremely attractive to conservatives in Iran and follow their dark narrative about US politics. Khamenei does not want to push Trump toward the position of the US establishment, which the Iranian leader believes largely opposes the Iranian government, until he feels that it is absolutely necessary to confront Trump.

Iranian conservatives have focused on Trump’s anti-establishment stance as potentially beneficial to Iran and outweighing the American president’s expressed Islamophobia.

An influential ultra-conservative, Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Movahedi-Kermani, Tehran’s Friday Prayer leader who was recently appointed by Khamenei to succeed the late Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as interim chairman of the Expediency Council, said at Jan. 27 Friday prayers, “Mr. Trump, you have entered the White House with pledges of serving people and your country … making up for the previous administrations’ policies, saving the needy, and fighting against terrorism. Try to fulfill your promises … [and] separate your path from previous administrations.”

The second reason for Khamenei’s reticence is that he does not want to escalate US-Iran conflict at this time and risk collapsing the nuclear agreement. Despite his frequent statements about the futility of the nuclear deal and the “dishonest” United States, Khamenei realizes that Iran cannot afford the re-imposition of comprehensive sanctions on its energy and financial sectors given the abysmal economic conditions in the country.

In 2013, recognizing the urgency of lifting sanctions, Khamenei altered a decades-long stance of “no talks with the Great Satan” by introducing the concept of “heroic flexibility” in diplomacy. The move opened the path to the culmination of the nuclear accord in 2015 and its full implementation last year.

The Ayatollah’s patience has limits, however. If Trump introduces new sanctions on the energy or financial sectors, or refuses to issue sanctions waivers on foreign investment and trade with Iran required by the nuclear agreement, that would most likely lead to retaliatory moves by Iran including a rapid expansion of both its nuclear and missile programs.

Indeed, Pence and the Trump administration as a whole should “think twice” before taking actions that could unravel the nuclear deal. Most wars begin as a result of miscalculations. 

Shahir Shahidsaless is an Iranian-Canadian political analyst and freelance journalist writing about Iranian domestic and foreign affairs, the Middle East, and the US foreign policy in the region. He is the co-author of Iran and the United States: An Insider’s View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace. He is a contributor to several websites with focus on the Middle East as well as the Huffington Post. He also regularly writes for BBC Persian. He tweets @SShahisaless