With clock ticking, many fear a Trump military move against Iran

Ali Harb

Middle East Eye  /  November 24, 2020

Trump is piling sanctions on Iran to make a return to the JCPOA more complicated. But is a strike against the Islamic Republic feasible ?

Tensions and anticipation are building up as the transfer of power starts in Washington with the incoming administration expected to reverse US President Donald Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran and return to the nuclear deal.

Last week, Trump – according to the New York Times – asked to assess military options for a possible strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Tehran has warned of a “crushing response” if it is attacked.

On Tuesday, Middle East Eye correspondent Suadad al-Salhy reported that Iranian officials, worried that Trump may “drag the region into an open war before leaving”, have instructed their Iraqi allies to halt attacks on US troops and interests.

With weeks left in his term in the White House, many fear that Trump may order an attack against Iran in a turn of events that would complicate matters for the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden.

‘It’s possible’

Such a strike is unlikely but not entirely out of the question, especially with an unpredictable figure like Trump, analysts say.

“I think it’s possible. And there are some worrying indications to that effect,” said Ryan Costello, policy director at the National Iranian American Council (NIAC).

He cited US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent visit to the Middle East where he held talks with the leaders of the anti-Iran camp, including – if Israeli news reports are to be believed – a joint meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities would be a “major endeavor” logistically and politically, and Trump does not have the luxury of time on his side, Costello said.

“Then you’d have to brace for Iran’s retaliation where they have a significant missile arsenal that can reach Saudi Arabia in particular and the US bases scattered around the region,” he added. “It would be an extremely risky move.”

Talks of a possible strike against Iran come paradoxically as Trump pushes to withdraw US troops out of Afghanistan and reduce the American military presence in the region.

Imad Harb, director of research and analysis at the Arab Center Washington DC, said there are factors that may motivate Trump to strike Iran in the coming weeks: leaving a legacy as the president who punished the Islamic Republic; preventing Biden from reinstating the nuclear agreement; and leaving a “parting present” for Netanyahu.

“There are chances for it happening, chances are it’s not happening – and they don’t all necessarily relate or are connected to Trump himself,” Harb told MEE.

He added that American politicians, military officials and the public are wary of the possibility of war in the Middle East, and a strike against Iran can quickly turn into an open conflict. 

Harb predicts that US military leaders would push back against an order to attack Iran, especially in the final days of the administration. 

Pentagon caution

Last week, the New York Times reported that Trump’s advisers, including acting Defence Secretary Christopher Miller and top general Mark Milley, dissuaded him against considering a strike on an Iranian nuclear facility.

Miller succeeded Mark Esper, who was fired along with other top Pentagon officials earlier this month, raising fears that Trump may be planning something unconventional – including the possibility of an attack on Iran or pushing the military to intervene in US political affairs.

Lame-duck presidents usually refrain from starting conflicts that would last beyond the end of their terms, but Trump has proved to be a norm-defying political figure. He has not accepted the election results nor conceded the presidential race to Biden. 

On Monday, General Services Administration, an independent agency that helps manage the federal government, acknowledged Biden’s victory and announced the beginning of the official transition process.

Despite his loss, Trump will retain the full powers of the presidency until the new president is sworn in on 20 January. That includes his position as the commander-in-chief of the US armed forces.

Still, military leaders and national security officials, who are usually consulted before major decisions, are likely to try to persuade Trump against rash military action. 

The US president ordered then aborted a military attack against Iran last year, halting the mission minutes before it started.

Early in 2020, Trump ordered an air strike that killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad after a spike in tensions that followed an attack by Tehran-backed Iraqi militants on a US base.

A Democratic-led effort to curb Trump’s power to strike Iran initially succeeded in Congress before facing a presidential veto.

Beyond domestic considerations, Harb said, the outgoing US president has to weigh how America’s allies may react to a strike against Iran.

Washington’s Gulf partners – who are warning Biden against returning to the nuclear deal – may cheer for Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, but they know the possible consequences for a military conflict between the US and Iran, he added.

“Yes, the Gulf countries are enamoured with what Donald Trump can give them, and they are very happy supposedly with striking new deals with Israel,” Harb said. 

“But will they really encourage something like this? Because maybe the very first thing that will happen is they themselves will get the brunt of an Iranian counter-attack.”

More sanctions

Politically, Trump is trying to subvert a future return to the deal by piling new sanctions on already-sanctioned Iranian entities and individuals.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) saw Iran scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of sanctions against its economy.

Since leaving the multilateral pact in May 2018, the US administration has been incessantly blacklisting Iranian companies, banks and political and military officials.

Late last month, for example, the US Treasury issued a list of “counterterrorism” sanctions against Iranian entities.

Costello, of NIAC, explained that the new sanctions aim to increase the political cost for Biden to re-join the JCPOA.

“It’s not a legal bind on the Biden administration, but a political bind where they feel that it would be harder for the new administration to make the case that sanctions on counterterrorism targets should be lifted just to get back into the nuclear deal,” he said.

Sami Scheetz, who served as the Biden campaign’s deputy director of coalitions in Iowa, said the president-elect’s nomination of Tony Blinken as secretary of state signals an emphasis on diplomacy from the incoming administration.

“The JCPOA was not a perfect agreement, but it brought the Iranian nuclear weapons programme to a screeching halt without a single bullet being fired,” Scheetz told MEE.

“Donald Trump’s abrogation of that agreement only emboldened hardliners in Iran who long for confrontation with the US. President-elect Biden and Mr. Blinken have repeatedly stated that we must return to the JCPOA framework.”

For his part, Harb said despite the dangers of a military move by the current administration, the disastrous outcome is likely to rein in impulsive actors.

“Everybody in the end, when they get to the edge of the abyss, they’re going to find that it is very deep and that they don’t want to go down it.”

Ali Harb is a writer based in Washington, DC; he reports on US foreign policy, Arab-American issues, civil rights and politics