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US or Israeli attack on Iran unlikely — but not impossible

Just because a course of action is strategically senseless doesn’t mean that Trump won’t do it.

Analysis | Middle East

If there is one thing we know for certain about the Trump administration, it is that when we think it cannot possibly get worse, it does. In his waning days as president, Donald Trump is actively considering war with Iran. 

The New York Times reported Tuesday that the previous week, Trump had demanded options for attacking Iran. His advisors talked him out of it, but officials told the paper that “Trump might still be looking at ways to strike Iranian assets and allies.” The Jerusalem Post speculates that “Trump will either order U.S. military action against Iran or give Israel a green light, as well as some assistance, to do so on its own.”

The general consensus is that such a strike is unlikely. But analysts are chastened by Trump’s history; just because a course of action is strategically senseless doesn’t mean that Trump won’t do it. 

Kori Schake of the American Enterprise Institute worried in a recent NPR interview that Trump “is putting malleable people in place in order to end his administration with a bang.” A U.S. attack is not likely, she said, primarily because it would require coordination with U.S. allies who would oppose it. Israel, however, could act on its own. Former Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns warned in the same interview that Iran would be the likely focus of any military strike. Former Trump national security advisor H.R. McMaster last week gave a similar warning of a possible Israeli attack.

Further heightening these concerns, Trump officials are blitzing the Middle East with visits, calls, and interviews. Trump’s Iran envoy Elliott Abrams was in Israel last week for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will travel to Israel this week, and the chief of staff of the Israeli military, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, held a video call with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley last week. Meanwhile, a member of Netanyahu’s cabinet, Settlements Minister Tzahi Hanegbi, flatly predicted in early November that Israel will attack Iran if Joe Biden is elected president. Ominously, the U.S. Central Command announced on Monday that it moved a detachment of F-16 fighter-bombers from Germany to the UAE, across the Gulf from Iran.

Talk of war comes after four years of Trump’s policies have failed to produce either the “better deal” he promised or a weakened government in Teheran that could be easily overthrown. Trump ramped up sanctions and “terrorist” designations of Iranian officials and agencies after he effectively left the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, negotiated by President Barack Obama with six other nations and the European Union. The historic accord had shrunk Iran’s nuclear program to a fraction of its previous size, froze it for a generation and locked it into one of the most intrusive inspection programs in the world.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D.-VA) told CNN on Tuesday that the agreement was working: “Iran was abiding in all respects: centrifuges, enrichment, stockpiling of enriched materials, getting rid of its plutonium reactor.” Trump pulled out of the deal “because Obama had his name on it,” he said. In response, “Iran started slowly to increase its supply of enriched uranium. Dangerous, but something the United States triggered because of its pull out from the agreement.” The International Atomic Energy Agency reported last week that Iran’s stockpile was now 12 times what is was before Trump began violating the accord, or about 2400 kilograms of low-enriched uranium. It would take Iran a few months to convert that material into the core of one bomb.

Trump’s “maximum pressure strategy is a maximum failure,” says the Atlantic Council’s Barbara Slavin. Iran is now closer to being able to build a nuclear bomb; its position in the region is stronger, not weaker. Trump may now be tempted to cover up this failure with a spasm of strikes, missiles or cyber, or an Israeli proxy attack. He can expect support from the well-funded far-right network of Washington lobbyists and advocates for war with Iran. If this is not vigorously countered by military officials, members of Congress and responsible experts and organizers, Trump might believe he can deflect from his electoral defeat — and possibly find a justification for emergency powers — with a new war in the Middle East.

The answer is diplomatic, not kinetic. As Quincy Institute Vice President Trita Parsi details, before the end of the year, Biden should “prepare the ground for the resurrection of the nuclear deal and broader diplomacy with Iran.” Returning the United States and Iran to compliance with the JCPOA could be done quickly at the beginning of the new administration, again reducing the nuclear threat and re-establishing the foundation for a follow-on agreement and talks to resolve other disputes.

This, in turn, would allow the United States to establish a more robust relationship with Iran with regular contacts — as was the case during the Obama administration — that would reduce the risks of conflicts that could escalate, intended or unintended, into a war that would make the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan look trivial in comparison. 

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