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.
As a lame-duck Trump would be universally condemned for taking pre-emptive action against the Iranian nuclear structure. Of course, Trump has done a lot of things and stuck to them that he has been condemned for.
Another question is concerns North Korea that would seem a more urgent target as it may well be capable of reaching mainland US with a nuclear weapon.
For Israel the question might be whether the destruction and damage within Israel itself from the combined missile assault from Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria would be so great as to undermine the country for years to come. Is it possible that all the delay on our side comes from this consideration?
In response to your last point, I ask:
Do you recommend waiting until the enemy has even more missiles, and letting them have the advantage of attacking first?
I don’t know the answer. I am not an expert, and am without any inside knowledge about our capabilities and American capabilities in pre-emption. But I do have the sense that could we have attacked in such a way as to prevent any retaliation on their part or the part of their surrogates that we would have done so.
Israel as you well know is a very small country, with the economic heartland an even smaller physical area. They do not need for one- hundred or fifty missiles to get through to paralyze us.
Witness the pathetic situation with Hamas and Islamic Jihad from Gaza. We cannot hermetically seal the country even from this much smaller danger.
I certainly wish we could pre-empt and destroy their capability to injure us but all past experience teaches that however great the margin in damage we can do to them from damage they can do to us- the damage we will suffer will still be considerable.