US President Donald Trump could take “reckless” military action against Iran in his final days in office, experts have warned, as tensions between Tehran and Washington mount on the eve of the first anniversary of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani’s assassination.
The US flew B-52 bombers over the Gulf three times in the past month, most recently on Wednesday, in what the Trump administration called a deterrence measure to keep Iran from retaliating on January 3, the anniversary of Soleimani’s killing in a US drone strike.
But with less than a month left in the White House, Trump is under pressure from key allies in the Middle East – namely Israel and Saudi Arabia – to take action on Iran, said Danny Postel, assistant director of the Center for International and Area Studies at Northwestern University.
“Trump is a very wounded and very cornered animal in an end-game scenario. He’s got a few weeks left, and we know that he is capable of extremely erratic behaviour,” Postel, an expert on Iran and US foreign policy, told Al Jazeera in an interview.
“It may be the case that his most erratic, most reckless lashing out is yet to come.”
On Saturday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said, “New intelligence from Iraq indicate[s] that Israeli agent-provocateurs are plotting attacks against Americans – putting an outgoing Trump in a bind with a fake casus belli.”
Without providing evidence to back up his claims, Zarif warned Trump to “be careful of a trap”. “Any fireworks will backfire badly, particularly against your same BFFs [best friends forever],” he tweeted.
Earlier this week, Iran warned the US not to escalate the situation in the run-up to the Soleimani assassination anniversary, with Zarif saying on Thursday that “intelligence from Iraq indicate [sic] plot to FABRICATE pretext for war”.
“Iran doesn’t seek war but will OPENLY & DIRECTLY defend its people, security & vital interests,” the foreign minister tweeted. That same day, Iran condemned Washington’s “military adventurism” in a letter to the UN Security Council.
Iranian officials have pledged “harsh revenge” for Soleimani’s assassination at Baghdad international airport.
However, experts are unconvinced that Tehran would give the Trump administration a pretext to launch a military confrontation right now as US President-elect Joe Biden, who intends to restart diplomatic engagement with Tehran, is set to assume office on January 20.
Biden has said he plans to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a landmark accord signed during President Barack Obama’s administration that saw Iran limit its nuclear enrichment in exchange for a lifting of international sanctions.
Trump withdrew the US from the agreement in 2018 as part of his administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran, which also saw Washington impose crippling sanctions on several key Iranian industries.
This week, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said Iran’s uranium stockpile was 12 times the limit set by the JCPOA in November. Iran also notified the IAEA on Friday that it planned to enrich uranium to 20 percent, a level only reached before the JCPOA.
But supporters of diplomatic engagement say it is the only way to ensure Iran abides by international regulations, while Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has said his country will return to the accord if the other signatories do the same.
Last week, a group of 150 Democratic Party congressmen in the US House of Representatives urged Biden to go back to the nuclear deal.
“We are united in our support for swiftly taking the necessary diplomatic steps to restore constraints on Iran’s nuclear program and return both Iran and the United States to compliance with the [JCPOA] as a starting point for further negotiations,” they wrote in a December 24 letter (PDF).
The Pentagon announced on Thursday that the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier, which was off the coast of Somalia, was being pulled back to its homeport. Some US officials said the move could be a signal of an effort to de-escalate regional tensions.
But concerns persist that Trump – who still refuses to acknowledge Biden’s victory in the US elections – could take action to further intensify the situation with Iran. The president in November asked for military options to hit Iran’s nuclear facilities but declined to act, US media reported.
Experts also said in November that the assassination of a top Iranian nuclear scientist – an act that many observers blamed on Israel, but for which no claim of responsibility has been made – aimed to complicate Biden’s plan to restart diplomacy with Iran.
Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a think-tank in Washington, DC, said key Trump backers – Evangelicals and supporters of Israel, in particular – could be pushing for a confrontation.
The killing of top Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November could complicate US President-elect Joe Biden’s efforts to restart negotiations with Tehran, experts said [Iranian Defence Ministry/AFP]
With rumours swirling that Trump is planning a 2024 run for president, the Republican leader could decide “to start a war of choice with Iran to finally kill the JCPOA and strengthen his grip over the GOP [Republican Party]”, Parsi told Al Jazeera in an email.
Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, said on Friday that “the threat of a wider war between the US and Iran remains as both the Trump administration and Israel have recently deployed more assets to the region”.
“Such a conflict would be a horrible climax to the failed US policy of ‘maximum pressure’”, Slavin wrote, “that saw the US withdraw unilaterally from the JCPOA in 2018 while Iran was in full compliance.”
She added that there is a window for diplomacy ahead of Iran’s presidential elections in June – and that engagement is the only way forward.
“The United States – and Israel – can’t kill their way to Iranian non-proliferation or accomplish that goal through cyber attacks. Only diplomacy has proven effective in constraining Iran’s nuclear activities. It is the only sensible way forward,” Slavin said.
Meanwhile, Postel drew a comparison between the final days of the Trump administration and those of former President George W. Bush in 2008 before Obama’s inauguration.
At that time, Israel and Saudi Arabia were similarly angling for military action against Iran, Postel said, and “there was a very similar intensification – at the very least – of sabre-rattling and aggressive rhetoric coming from the Bush administration”.
Postel said who is in power in the US and Iran has a critical impact on the prospects of diplomacy. For example, the Iran nuclear deal was reached when Obama and Rouhani – both of whom favoured international engagement – were in office.
He added that Iranian hardliners may be poised to defeat Rouhani in the country’s next elections later this year, making the current moment – with Biden set to take office – all the more important.
“I think this is a very critical moment in US-Iran relations where there might be a chance to remove war from the equation and find a diplomatic solution to at least this core issue of Iran’s nuclear programme,” he said.
“This is a momentous juncture that we find ourselves at in US-Iran relations.”