In 2008, after the election that brought former US president Barack Obama to power, there were some officials in Israel who were confident that the previous president, George W. Bush, would not leave office with Iran’s nuclear facilities still standing. They were wrong. Iran’s nuclear facilities are not only still standing; they have grown in quality and quantity.
This is important to keep in mind amid speculation – once again during a presidential lame duck period – that in his last few weeks in office, Donald Trump will either order US military action against Iran or give Israel a green light, as well as some assistance, to do so on its own.
The speculation has a number of catalysts. First was the firing of Mark Esper as secretary of defense this past week and the replacement of him and other top Pentagon officials with Trump ideologues. Some media outlets in the US have raised the possibility that Trump wanted to get Esper out of the way, so he could more easily carry out controversial military moves.
In addition, there is no doubt that there is a lot of coordination already taking place on Iran. Elliott Abrams, the administration’s top envoy on Iran, was in Israel this week for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will be here next week for three days to continue those conversations; and on Thursday night, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi held a video call with his US counterpart, chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley.
And then there was the interview that H.R. McMaster, Trump’s former national security adviser, gave to Fox News on Wednesday in which he raised the possibility that Israel – fearful of President-elect Joe Biden’s Iran policies – would attack Iran in the twilight of Trump’s term in office.
For veteran Israel-Iran watchers, this feels like a rerun of what happened in 2008 as well as in 2012 when Israel also seemed on the verge of an attack. While ministers later confirmed that Netanyahu had in fact wanted to launch an attack in 2012, he ultimately failed to muster support in the cabinet, so the IDF had no choice but to back down.
There are also no signs of activity in the IDF that would indicate a possible war, like beefing up forces in the North or preparing the home front for the missile onslaught that will likely follow. On the other hand, we should not necessarily expect to see moves that would give away a strike in the planning. In 2007, ahead of Israel’s bombing of Syria’s nuclear reactor, almost no one knew about it within the IDF, let alone throughout the country.
When it comes to the sense of urgency, while the International Atomic Energy Agency’s report this past week about Iran’s growing uranium stockpile is concerning, Tehran is still not at the point of building a bomb since it is not yet enriching uranium to military-grade levels. If that were to happen, the clock would definitely start ticking toward a possible bombing. But absent such enrichment – or some other piece of secret intelligence that the public is not aware of – there does not seem to be an immediate reason to attack right now.
Keep in mind that an Israeli strike against Iran is extremely complicated and has always been viewed by the IDF as a last resort. It is just that the threat is not yet at the point to warrant a military strike.
And then there is politics. Netanyahu has enough trouble heading into a new election campaign, which has a good chance of starting sometime in the coming week or two. His management of the coronavirus crisis has weakened him and his popularity ratings are falling. A war with thousands of rockets raining down all across Israel will probably not help.
Despite all the above, it is important to keep in mind that almost anything is possible when dealing with these two leaders – Trump and Netanyahu – who are unpredictable and willing to do a lot to stay relevant and in office.