RASHT – Reports that US President Donald Trump consulted senior aides about military attack options on Iran has raised speculation that a new destabilizing conflict could be imminent in the twilight of his tumultuous term.
Trump reportedly backed away from launching a strike when confronted with the scenarios such a hit would likely set in motion. But there are still concerns the lame-duck president may fire parting salvos at his Iranian adversary, leaving behind a conflict for his rival President-elect Joe Biden to untangle.
Trump raised the strike option in a November 12 meeting at the Oval Office with his top-tier cabinet members, namely Vice-President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, acting Defense Secretary Christopher C Miller and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Mark Milley.
It’s unclear if there was unanimity in talking Trump out of the perilous gambit, and if strikes are still potentially on the table. But the reports said Trump was warned that any attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities could quickly spiral into a wider conflict that inflames much of the Middle East.
Iran supports or maintains proxy forces in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon and could be expected to launch retaliatory attacks against US and allied targets in those nations.
Expert commentators have since explored different scenarios for how such a war would be waged and how it could potentially engulf the wider region.
Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in a recent article that the US could choose to destroy Iran’s nuclear industry through sustained attacks on its reactors and enrichment plants over several weeks.
Barring an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, the US could also unleash a campaign of “submarine- or air-launched missiles against Iranian military targets” so as not to involve the bases of its allies in Iran’s proximity as launching pads for the attacks, opening them to retaliation.
This file handout picture released by Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization on November 4, 2019, shows atomic enrichment facilities at Natanz nuclear power plant, some 300 kilometers south of capital Tehran. Photo: AFP/Atomic Energy Organization of Iran
Schake went on to hypothesize that any such intervention by the US will invite reciprocal action from Iran, with Tehran potentially deploying a nuclear armament, if they indeed possess one, as a counter. Iran could also target US bases in Iraq, its US Central Command facilities in Bahrain and other regional strongholds, Schake speculated.
David Andelman, an executive director of The Redlines Project, wrote that as the US prepares to withdraw forces from Iraq over the next two months, its position in the country will be more vulnerable, and any step by Trump to “bait, challenge and even attack Iran” could put the remaining US troops and US wider interests in the region at serious risk.
It’s unclear why Trump is considering an attack now, though some suspect he is concerned about the legacy of his Iran policy. A recent report by the International Atomic Energy Agency showed that Iran’s reserves of low-enriched uranium are now 12 times larger than what the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, signed in July 2015 and scrapped by Trump in mid-2018, had allowed it to possess.
The 2,442-kilogram nuclear stockpile, as assessed by experts, is believed to be sufficient to produce at least two nuclear weapons, a strong repudiation of Trump administration claims perpetuated mainly by Pompeo, that sanctions and pressure on Teheran have been a policy success. Trump has slapped various draconian sanctions on Iran, ensuring the Islamic Republic is cut off from the world’s energy, banking, financial and transportation sectors.
Some have suggested Trump could also aim to leverage emergency powers as a “war-time” president to delay or halt the official certification of his November 3 presidential election loss to Biden, but his legal challenges seem increasingly like a desperate long-shot.
There are plenty of reasons why Trump will opt against escalating his sanctions regimes into military action.
For one, Trump has talked tough before but largely shied from starting new conflicts while in office. He has on several occasions decried the United States’ “endless wars” initiated by his predecessors, including Barack Obama and Biden, and has actively sought to diminish the US’ self-claimed role as the world’s policeman.
Iranian protesters shout anti-US slogans during a rally to mark the Islamic Revolution anniversary in Azadi (Freedom) square in western Tehran on February 11, 2020. Photo: Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via AFP
He has also shied from conflict with Iran even when provoked. In June 2019, when Teheran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps downed a US surveillance drone over the Persian Gulf’s Strait of Hormuz after it was detected in Iran’s airspace, Trump authorized retaliatory missile strikes on a number of Iranian military sites but called them off at the last minute.
In justifying the reversal, Trump said he learned through his military advisors that at least 150 people would have been killed in such an attack, and he didn’t want the casualties on his record.
“We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sites when I asked, ‘How many will die?’ ‘150 people, sir,’ was the answer from a General. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it, not … proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone,” he tweeted on June 21, 2019.
On January 3 this year, General Qasem Soleimani, a feared Iranian military commander and the right-hand man of Iran’s Supreme Leader, was killed in a US drone strike near the Baghdad International Airport. Trump has acknowledged personally underwriting the operation that assassinated the top general.
The assassination put the Middle East and world on edge, with speculation the killing could be the match to spark World War III. Instead, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, restless for a face-saving retribution, launched 22 ground-to-ground missiles at the Ayn al-Asad airbase in Iraq’s Al Anbar and another base in Erbil hosting US troops on January 8.
To avert large-scale fatalities, Iran gave prior notice to Iraqi authorities, who in turn tipped off US forces so they could be evacuated. Though Iranian raids did not cause any deaths, 109 US troops were diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries from the strikes, the Pentagon reported.
Second, while Trump is widely seen as unsophisticated in geopolitics, preferring transactional horse-trading to traditional diplomacy, he has several learned advisors around him, including experts on Iran. They are believed to have explained in detail the knock-on effects of military brinkmanship with Iran, including likely US and allied targets for Iranian retaliation.
Those could include blocking the Strait of Hormuz, a key passage for the world’s oil shipments, encouraging Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon to hit Israeli cities with Iran-provided missiles, and assaults on US bases in Iraq including its gigantic embassy in Baghdad. Iran could also prod Houthi rebels in Yemen to hit US ally Saudi Arabia including its oil-producing facilities with Iranian drones.
Iran is strategically placed to choke the Persian Gulf’s Strait of Hormuz. Map: NASA
To be sure, the US threat of an “imminent” or “impending” military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, or a more extensive war against the country, has been on the table for almost 20 years.
Ever since Iran’s nuclear controversy flared up in 2002, the US has threatened Iran with destructive attacks to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Iran, in response, has promised crushing retaliation which would make the US regret its first strike. The two longtime adversaries do not share diplomatic relations.
George W Bush, Obama and Trump all at some point in their tenures toyed with the idea of attacking Iran. Trump warned Iran in January this year that he would launch strikes on 52 Iranian cultural sites if Iran ever harmed any US citizen or assets.
He tweeted at the time that the unnamed cultural heritage sites are “very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture” and “Iran itself” will be hit “very fast and very hard.”
Obama, for his part, issued war threats against Iran on a number of occasions during his two-term presidency. Although Obama is credited with pioneering engaged diplomacy with Iran, he never abandoned his position of strength when dealing with Iran, stating in March 2012 that his threats of using military force were not “bluffs.”
Bush, who blacklisted Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil” after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the US, pondered attacking Iran multiple times. In his memoir Decision Points, published in 2010, the former president revealed that he had “directed the Pentagon to study what would be necessary for a strike” against Iran to stop its alleged quest for nuclear weapons.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei visits the family of US-assasinated General Qasem Soleimani on January 3, 2020. Photo: AFP
Those assessments showed the Pentagon recognizes that Iran is not a landlocked nation like Afghanistan without the wherewithal to defend itself. It is a massive country of 85 million people with a well-equipped army and proxies based across the Middle East who are trained and prepared to make life-or-death sacrifices.
Trump must recognize that he is largely responsible for this no-win situation by pulling out of Obama’s Iran deal, converting a nuclear program curtailed by the JCPOA into a regenerated enterprise that Iran now deems as a potent bargaining chip in any future talks and agreements with the West.
If Trump pulls the trigger on a conflict during his last days in the White House, it will only underscore the failure of his policy of sanctions that have inevitably weakened the Iranian economy but not the regime’s survival and resolve to stand down yet another US administration’s unmet threats of war.