President Trump’s recent request for an update on attack options has set off speculation that he will order an attack on Iran in his final days as president. While this sounds like a great movie script, it is highly unlikely to happen for a number of reasons.
Several European security officials have expressed the thought that an outgoing President Donald Trump will trigger a military conflict with Iran in order to tie President-elect Joe Biden’s hands on dealing with Iran, but such an idea is far from reality.
So far, Mr. Biden and those around him have limited statements on Iran to an expressed desire to rejoin the Obama-era nuclear agreement with Iran, known as the JCPOA, which Mr. Trump withdrew the U.S. from three years ago.
As a practical matter, rejoining the JCPOA as it previously existed is impossible, as Iran has violated the terms of the agreement in a number of significant ways, particularly in terms of uranium enrichment, and returning to the status quo ante is a non-starter. Iran has in fact, as reported both by the international IAEA and Israeli intelligence, made substantial progress toward development of nuclear weapons capability that merely rejoining the old accord cannot walk back.
For their part, the Iranian response to Mr. Biden’s election and promise to return to the JCPOA has been mixed, with one leader claiming a return to the old agreement is impossible, and another stating it could only come with the U.S. paying for the Trump administration “mistakes.” Presumably, this is Iran’s opening gambit of extortion before anything can happen. How this will ultimately sort out remains to be seen.
A second area of speculation is that key U.S. allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, may see the departure of Mr. Trump as a ticking clock that they need to beat. The argument here is that both countries are run by “immature leaders” who have been pressing for a war with Iran for a long time and they see this as a last-ditch time to engage the U.S. in a joint attack.
This argument fails on several fronts. The thought that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is immature is nonsensical. He has been prime minister for 13 years and is now accompanied by Defense Minister Benny Ganz, who has extensive experience as well.
Most importantly, the Israeli defense and intelligence leadership has for several years argued against any such an attack, preferring to rely on limited covert operations, such as the Stuxnet cyber-attack on Iranian facilities and assassination of specific personnel in Iran associated with the nuclear weapons program.
What Saudi Arabia might think about such a strike is of no real consequence. That nation remains a 12th-century corrupt feudal monarchy with a military capable of virtually nothing other than buying more weapons and leaving them to rust. In any actual military conflict, they are fundamentally useless, and few military planners see them as part of any possible engagement with Iran.
The third line of misplaced argument is that President Trump has elevated hardliners on Iran inside the Pentagon. No such “hardliners” on Iran have been “elevated.”
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and some other top officials were recently fired, largely over their failure to implement the president’s stated policy on Afghanistan and Iraq, and were replaced by individuals from outside the Defense Department who will be on an “acting” status through the next 10 weeks of the Trump administration. There is no evidence that this had anything to do with Iran.
Most recently Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking on a trip to Israel, has stated that Iran’s “influence in the region is waning,” and that the regime will be “ever more isolated … until they change their ways.”
This is consistent with prior statements made throughout the Trump presidency, and reflects of economic pressure and isolation — not a threat of military attack. Admittedly, Mr. Trump has stated that Iran would not be permitted to acquire nuclear weapons as long as he was president, but there has been no suggestion that the time for a strike to take out Iran’s facilities was at hand.
Missing from the current raft of these speculative reports is any discussion of what an attack on Iran might entail. Even a limited strike on a key facility such as the one at Natanz would be a complex operation where the U.S. and any allied nation would face a serious air-defense system and the need to strike Iranian facilities that have been designed by Russian engineers, trained in the old Soviet Union, and hardened against conventional attack.
In short, such a strike is not a simple thing, and would most likely spark retaliation by Iranian forces against Israel and other regional allies. This is a risk that few in either the U.S. or Israel are willing to undertake at present.
Certainly, the incoming Biden team will be taking a close look at the situation in Iran and hopefully formulating a policy that is consistent with the current technical and geopolitical realities. It is still too early in the process to ask for more detail. Several of those suggested for key national security posts, such as Tony Blinken, Michelle Flournoy, Susan Rice, Jake Sullivan and others have good experience and insight.
At some point those nominated need to be read-in on current intelligence on Iran — hopefully sooner rather than later – and help the incoming Biden administration formulate a policy on Iran that makes sense.
In the meantime, however, expectation that the Trump administration will preempt the incoming Biden team will remain fanciful speculation. It is a concept that is just not supported by the realities of the situation or the thinking of the Israeli leadership, who remain the key partner in dealing with the Iranian threat. At present, none favor attacking Iran.
• Abraham Wagner has served in several national security positions, including the NSC Staff under Presidents Nixon and Ford.
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