Will Trump attack Iran before he leaves office? - opinion

Trump could launch a limited strike against Iran’s nuclear sites but that still could deteriorate into a war. Even a symbolic attack on one of the sites might bring a rapid escalation.

PROTESTERS BURN pictures of US President-elect Joe Biden and President Donald Trump, in Tehran, Iran, in November. (photo credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)
PROTESTERS BURN pictures of US President-elect Joe Biden and President Donald Trump, in Tehran, Iran, in November.
There have been reports suggesting that US President Donald Trump might strike Iran before he leaves office on January 20.
The United States is worried about Iran’s nuclear program, however, stopping Iran might require a war. After the cost of the war in Iraq, the United States will do almost anything to avoid getting into another war in the Middle East. This was the approach of the Obama administration and it continued during the Trump administration, although the latter opposes Obama’s policy on several levels.
Mr. Trump could launch a limited strike against Iran’s nuclear sites but that still could deteriorate into a war. Even a symbolic attack on one of the sites might bring a rapid escalation.
Iran could retaliate in several ways, depending on the scale of any US strike. One would be firing its missiles across the Gulf to hit both US bases and its arch-nemesis, Saudi Arabia, a US ally. Iran might also try to close the Strait of Hormuz, which would disrupt the global oil market.
Another option for Iran is to order its proxies to attack US forces and US allies in the region, including Israel. Iran could also launch terrorist operations and cyberattacks, not only in the Middle East, but across the globe, even on US territories. The US could return the favor and inflict much more damage and many more casualties than it would absorb. Nevertheless, from Trump’s perspective, the cost to the US might still be too high.
In his four years in office, Trump has been careful about using force, despite all his warnings, such as those issued against North Korea and Iran. Trump has launched a few air strikes in the Middle East, and they were relatively minor compared with a war. The most famous strike occurred on January 3, 2020, when Qassem Soleimani, the powerful head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, was assassinated in Iraq. Iran threatened again and again to retaliate but has until now restrained itself, fearing US retribution. Yet a US strike against Iran’s nuclear sites would be a different story.
The US military has immense superiority over Iran’s armed forces, yet the US would require time to prepare a raid in Iran, particularly since a strike might turn into a war. Furthermore, if the US military opposes the raid it can try to slow down its preparations and even to tell Trump that its troops would not be able to carry out this mission in the upcoming weeks, buying time until Joe Biden takes the oath of office and forcing Trump to cancel any operation.
THERE COULD be an effort to keep the planning of a US strike a secret. However, it is almost unavoidable that it would become public, which would generate enormous pressure from inside and outside the US to prevent the attack.
The Trump administration therefore has very good reasons for not bombing Iran’s nuclear sites. Yet there are some aspects that might bring Mr. Trump to consider it, even in his last days in office.
First, Trump has demonstrated his willingness to take risks and to surprise the world.
Second, the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” on Iran has been based on imposing crippling sanctions. The goal was to force Iran to negotiate with the US about a new deal, which would not only include more restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program but also on its ballistic missile program and regional ambitions. Iran, despite its suffering from US sanctions, has refused to talk with the Trump administration.
The Iranian regime has been waiting to see what it can get from the Biden administration. There might not be much of a change, but at least Iran’s leaders would be pleased they survived Trump’s pressure. In that sense, Trump’s policy did not succeed, until now. Ironically the bad shape of Iran’s economy might eventually coerce Iran to accept concessions.
Trump will want to take the credit for that but the Biden administration will argue it happened because of its policy. President Biden will have a strong case since such concessions will occur on his watch. The thought of such a possible outcome and Iran’s refusal to talk with Trump can cause him frustration, driving him to punish Iran and to show it the price of ignoring him.
Another goal, an unofficial one, of the heavy US sanctions was to undermine the Iranian regime, hoping its own people would topple it. There was unrest directed against the regime, mostly in late 2019, due to economic hardships. Yet the waves of protests were not organized and strong enough to bring down the leadership. The Trump administration could have done more to help the demonstrators, but such actions would have required proper preparations in advance.
EITHER WAY, the result is that the Iranian regime managed to outlast the Trump administration. This is a blow to Trump, another reason for him to teach Iran a lesson.
On January 4, Iran declared that it will be restarting uranium enrichment toward a 20% target. Iran currently enriches its uranium stockpile up to around 4.5%, a violation of the 3.67% cap it agreed to in the July 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the nuclear deal. Iran’s estimated breakout time is now less than four months. Trump, after his economic pressure on Iran did not work, might assume the military option is better.
Trump gave a lot of attention to the Middle East, where he reached some tremendous achievements, such as the normalization between Israel and several Arab states. That region is therefore an important part of Trump’s foreign policy legacy. If Iran eventually gets a nuclear weapon, Arab states like Saudi Arabia might gain one too. The Middle East will become a much more hazardous place, and a bigger problem for the US. Trump might not want to be considered a president who failed to stop this dangerous process in a region where he was so involved.
Israel and Arab states, mostly those near Iran, are aware that the Islamic Republic might attack them following a US strike against Iran. The latter might blame both Israel and Arab states for helping the US, even if that is not true. Nevertheless, Israel and those Arab states, which are very concerned about Iran’s nuclear program, might take the risk and pay the cost if a Trump strike inflicts huge damages to Iran’s nuclear program. Israel and Arab states might calculate it to be their last chance to have the US attack Iran, since the Biden administration would probably not do so.
Currently, Trump is focused on the results of the US elections. As to his decision whether or not to strike Iran, the coming days will tell. However, considering the obstacles facing such an attack and its severe ramifications, it is quite unlikely that Trump will end his presidency with a blast over the skies of Iran.
Dr. Ehud Eilam has been studying Israel’s national security for more than 25 years. After serving in Israel’s military he worked as a researcher for its Defense Ministry. He has published six books including Containment in the Middle East (University Press of Nebraska, 2019).