A recent IAEA report showed that Iran has considerably more low-enriched uranium than was permitted by the JCPOA and is installing advanced centrifuges at Natanz, also in contravention of the agreement, to further increase production. In addition, the uranium is being enriched to a higher degree than before. If they want to, the Iranians could have nuclear weapons sometime in 2021.
Apparently in response to the report, President Trump reportedly asked advisors for options to take action against Iran’s nuclear program. Those options could include anything from increased economic pressure, to cyber-attacks, and even military action. The NY Times said he had been “dissuaded” by advisors from a military strike because it “could easily escalate into a broader conflict in the last weeks of Mr. Trump’s presidency.” But Trump is nothing if not independent.
When Donald Trump took over from Barack Obama, one of the first things he did was reverse Obama’s disastrous Iran policy (I highly recommend this link), which was one of appeasement and acquiescence to extortion, motivated in part by Obama’s desire to see the end of the sovereign Jewish state. I’m convinced that Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy on Iran is the only approach short of war that might have any chance of modifying the behavior of the Iranian regime, which sees its nuclear program as a top priority. While the Iranian regime has responded to the pressure with increased aggressiveness, the US has – or would have, if the policy were to be continued – far more staying power.
The Iranian regime’s strategy has been to keep a low profile. It didn’t retaliate after the American killing of its most valuable terror operative, Qassem Soleimani. It didn’t construct a nuclear weapon. It has contented itself with strengthening its assets in Iraq and Syria, and gradually ramping up its nuclear program without taking any major visible steps. Despite its claims that the US is weak, the regime knows that it would be no match for what is still the world’s greatest military power. And it fears Trump because of his unpredictability.
Unsurprisingly, the major media are full of claims that “maximum pressure has failed.” That is not precisely true: it simply needs more time.
It may not get it. All the evidence seems to point to a Biden Administration returning to the Obama policy in some form, although the particular animus of Obama toward Israel seems to be lacking in Biden himself. The history of negotiations with the regime over its nuclear program shows that it will not give up anything that it is not forced to, and it will demand the relaxation of sanctions as a condition for negotiations. The regime has already indicated that it is happy with the (apparent) result of the American election, and is looking forward to dealing with a Biden Administration.
Whatever happens, Israel will be deeply involved. Part of Iran’s response to an attack, whether by Israel or the US, would be to unleash Hezbollah and Hamas against Israel’s home front. It would also attack US assets in Iraq, and American warships (and maybe commercial shipping) in the Gulf. It would probably hit Saudi Arabia too. These points were certainly made to Trump by his advisors.
While one conclusion could be that it is best not to act, there is another interpretation: rather than a minimalist operation to take out specific nuclear facilities, a larger operation that would also destroy Iran’s overall military capability is indicated. Probably an American attack on Iran would be accompanied by Israeli preemptive strikes against Hezbollah, in order to prevent the damage that would be done to Israel by the massive rocket barrage that would follow a blow against Iran.
PM Netanyahu has been averse to preemptive action against Hezbollah, partly because he wants to avoid the international condemnation that would follow. And because life is unpredictable, he will delay until the last moment; who knows what might happen to make war unnecessary? Finally, he may believe that an ultra-fast response to a Hezbollah attack plus Israel’s anti-missile systems would mitigate the disadvantages of allowing them to strike first.
On the other hand, he is a strong proponent of the Begin Doctrine, which says that Israel will not – must not – allow hostile states in the region to obtain nuclear weapons, especially Iran, which he views as having an antisemitic and genocidal regime. He knows that if Iran gets nuclear weapons, they will serve as an umbrella to protect Hezbollah, greatly multiplying the danger to Israel. I’m convinced he would go along with an American plan.
If Trump wants to achieve his original objective of precluding a nuclear-armed revolutionary Islamic regime in Iran, he has only about two months to act – and his ability to do so will weaken as the lame duck period progresses.
The clock is ticking.