Does the end of the Trump administration signal a revival of its war games with Iran?

·4-min read

With two months to go before the handover of power to Joe Biden, will lame-duck US President Donald Trump go back to playing war games with Iran? According to the New York Times, the lame duck president asked his advisers, who dissuaded him, about options for a strike on an Iranian nuclear facility.

New US sanctions have been imposed on Iran. This time, the targets of the November 18 American sanctions are the Iranian Minister of Intelligence and the Mostazafan Foundation of Islamic Revolution, which manages the money derived from the confiscated assets of the former royal family.

A few hours before the new sanctions were imposed, Tehran had declared itself willing to return to "automatically" respecting its nuclear commitments if the future administration of Joe Biden lifted sanctions. But the Trump administration seems to have other plans, hardening its tone a few weeks before it is scheduled to leave the White House in January 2021.

Far from having put the brakes on the Trump administration's "full-court press" approach to Tehran, Joe Biden's victory in the November 3 election has pushed the outgoing president to play his final trump cards in Iran.

On November 12, just days after his electoral defeat, Trump gathered his military advisers in the Oval Office to look into the possibility of a pre-emptive strike against Iran, the New York Times reported. These senior officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark A. Milley, dissuaded him from doing so, warning of the risk of triggering a broader regional conflict.

Secret Operations Against Iran

According to the American newspaper of record, Trump wanted to target the nuclear site of Natanz, located in central Iran. It was at this facility that the International Atomic Energy Agency reported on November 11 – the day before Trump's meeting – that Iran's stockpile of uranium was now 12 times larger than what had been authorised by the nuclear agreement that Washington withdrew from in 2018. While the quantity is worrisome, it is far less than the amount of nuclear fuel Iran had amassed before former US President Barack Obama reached the July 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran, the New York Times reported.

This episode says a lot about the American President's state of mind in terms of leaving office: does he want to leave his successor a poisoned chalice? Some national security officials are worried, especially since Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper and other senior Pentagon officials last week, replacing them with his cronies and less likely to question his impulsive orders. Worries, expressed privately, are emerging within the Defence Department "as to whether the president could launch operations, open or covert, against Iran or other adversaries at the end of his term," the New York Times reported.

Deterred from launching a missile attack on Iran by Pompeo and Gen. Milley, Trump could also consider striking Iranian assets or those of its allies, including militias in Iraq, the New York Times reported, citing senior administration officials.

Arms sales to enemies of Tehran

Behind the scenes, Donald Trump took action in another way, by authorising the sale of advanced weapons to Tehran's regional enemies. On November 10, Pompeo formally informed Congress that the US planned to sell $23 billion worth of reaper drones, F35 stealth fighters, air-to-air missiles and other munitions to the United Arab Emirates. He presented the deal as a contribution to efforts against their common adversary, Iran.

Abu Dhabi had long sought to acquire these F-35 fighters, which are difficult to detect by radar and capable of surgical strikes. They had thus far been unsuccessful in the face of Israel's historic opposition to selling such aircraft to other Middle Eastern countries in a bid to maintain its technological superiority. Recently, though, Israel agreed to the transaction, killing two birds with one stone: normalising its diplomatic relations with the UAE, and further threatening its Iranian enemy.

The US Congress had already tried to block an arms sale to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates last year, but failed to muster the two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto. This time, three US senators – including one Republican – launched an initiative on November 18 to block the sale, fearing "a dangerous arms race”. Even if they manage to find a simple majority in the Republican-led Senate to block the sale, they will then have to find a two-thirds majority in the Senate and the House of Representatives to override a veto by President Trump.

US officials interviewed by the New York Times fear the worst is yet to come. They are particularly nervous as January 3, the anniversary of the American strike that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani on Iraqi soil in 2020, approaches. The ultraconservatives in Tehran and the Revolutionary Guard have not forgotten the death of the former head of the Iranian Al-Quds force, an elite unit of the Revolutionary Guard. Security at US embassies in the region has been tightened and Pompeo warned that the killing of an American would be a red line that could provoke a military response.

Translated from the original in French.