WASHINGTON – President Trump asked senior advisors in a meeting of the Oval Office on Thursday whether he had options in the coming weeks to crack down on Iran’s main nuclear site. The meeting came a day after international inspectors reported a significant increase in the inventory of nuclear material in the country, four current and former US officials said on Monday.
A number of high-level advisers prevented the president from launching a military strike. The advisors – including Vice President Mike Pence; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; Christopher C. Miller, Acting Secretary of Defense; and General Mark A. Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, warned that a strike against Iranian institutions in the final weeks of Mr Trump’s presidency could easily lead to a major conflict.
Any strike – whether via missile or cyber – would almost certainly focus on Natanz, where the International Atomic Energy Agency reported Wednesday that Iran’s uranium supplies were now twelve times larger than they were after the nuclear deal that Mr Trump abandoned in 2018 also found that Iran had not given him access to any other suspicious location with evidence of previous nuclear activity.
Mr Trump asked his top national security workers what options were available and how they should react.
After Mr. Pompeo and General Milley described the possible risks of a military escalation, officials left the meeting believing a missile attack in Iran was off the table, officials with knowledge of the meeting said.
Mr Trump could still be looking for ways to hit Iranian assets and allies, including militias in Iraq, officials said. A smaller group of national security forces had met late Wednesday to discuss Iran with the president the day before the meeting.
White House officials did not respond to requests for comment.
The episode highlighted how Mr Trump is still exposed to a range of global threats in his final weeks in office. A strike against Iran may not be good for its base, which is largely against a deeper American conflict in the Middle East, but it could poison relations with Tehran, making it much more difficult for President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. becomes. revive the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal as he promised.
Since Trump sacked Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper and other senior Pentagon aids last week, the Department of Defense and other national security officials have privately raised concerns that the president could openly or clandestinely launch operations against Iran or other opponents at the end of his term in office.
The events of the past few days are not the first time Iranian politics has emerged in the final days of an outgoing government. During the final days of the Bush administration in 2008, Israeli officials, concerned that the incoming Obama administration would try to prevent the attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, sought bunker bombs, bombers and intelligence assistance from the United States for one of them Israel-led strike.
Vice President Dick Cheney later wrote in his memoir that he supported the idea. President George W. Bush did not, but the result was far closer cooperation with Israel in a cyberattack against the Natanz facility that shot down about 1,000 Iranian nuclear centrifuges.
Since then, the Pentagon has revised its strike plans several times. It now has traditional military as well as cyber options and some that combine both. Some involve direct action by Israel.
The report by the International Atomic Energy Agency concluded that Iran now has more than 2,442 kilograms, or more than 5,385 pounds of low-enriched uranium, on stock. According to an analysis of the report by the Institute for Science and International Security, this is enough to produce about two nuclear weapons. However, it would take several months of additional processing to turn the uranium into bomb-worthy material, meaning Iran would not be close to a bomb until late spring at the earliest – long after Mr Trump left office.
While the amount is concerned, it is well below the amount of fuel Iran owned before President Barack Obama reached a nuclear deal with Tehran in July 2015. At the end of the year, Iran shipped about 97 percent of its fuel supply to Russia under the terms of the deal – about £ 25,000 – and less than what it would take to build a single weapon.
The Iranians held fast to these borders even after Mr Trump abolished US participation in the Iran Agreement in 2018 and reinstated sanctions. The Iranians slowly began to cross these lines last year, stating that they would no longer adhere to these terms if Mr Trump felt free to break his rules.
But the Iranians have hardly raced to produce new material: their progress has been slow and steady, and they have refused to build a weapon – though evidence Israel stole from the country a few years ago made it clear that this was the plan before 2003.
Mr Trump has argued since the 2016 campaign that Iran was hiding some of its actions and betraying its commitments; The inspectors’ report last week gave him the first partial evidence to support this view. The report criticized Iran for failing to answer a series of questions about a warehouse in Tehran where inspectors found uranium particles, leading to suspicions that it was once some kind of nuclear processing facility. The report said Iran’s replies were “technically not credible”.
The International Atomic Energy Agency previously complained that inspectors were excluded from the full review of some suspicious sites.
It’s not just the US military looking for options. According to official information, Mr Pompeo is closely monitoring the events on the ground in Iraq for evidence of aggression by Iran or its militias against American diplomats or troops stationed there.
Mr Pompeo has already drawn up plans to close the U.S. embassy in Baghdad over concerns about potential threats, although in recent days he appeared ready to leave that decision to the next administration. Mortar and missile attacks against the embassy have subsided in recent weeks, and the task of shutting down the largest American diplomatic mission in the world could take months.
But officials said that could change if Americans are killed before inauguration day.
Officials are particularly nervous about the anniversary of the January 3 US strike that killed Major General Qassim Suleimani, the commander of the elite Iranian Quds force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the Iraqi leader of an Iran-backed militia Iranian leaders regularly insist that they have not yet taken revenge.
Mr Pompeo, who has been the strongest proponent among Mr Trump’s advisors to hobble Iran while the government can, has more recently made it clear that the death of an American was a red line that could provoke a military response.
That would also increase tensions between Washington and Baghdad. Diplomats said Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi would almost certainly object to the assassination of Iraqis – even Iranian-backed militiamen – on Iraqi soil by US forces awaiting departure.