European intelligence officials are alarmed about the possibility of military action towards Iran in the waning days of the Trump administration. Concern that Trump — who has pushed for maximum pressure on Iran — or a combination of Israel or Saudi Arabia creating a military confrontation in the waning days of the administration has been a concern for over a week, according to three European intelligence officials who spoke with Insider.
The news that last week the president requested a list of military options from his military and diplomatic advisors has sent these concerns into overdrive.
One fear is of unilateral action by the US to force a military clash that might make it impossible for the incoming Biden administration to return to the 2015 joint nuclear agreement that traded sanctions relief on Iran for an end to its nuclear weapon programs, all three officials said. They declined to speak on the record in exchange for their candid views on the situation.
“We are concerned about the instincts of President Trump to force a major confrontation as he leaves office that might tie Biden’s hands,” said one official. “But while we have no confidence in the current American president not to act rashly, we do have some confidence that the political unpopularity of any move along with the deep concerns I am sure the military leadership expressed will make it difficult [to act].”
The second fear is that the Saudis and Israel see the departure of Trump as a ticking clock that they need to beat.
“I’m afraid the Saudis or Israelis might see a sympathetic ear leaving the White House and a hostile one arriving and think that perhaps this will make a confrontation inevitable,” said a second NATO official. “Both countries are run by immature leaders who have been screaming about the need for war with Iran for so long it’s possible they really believe that a Biden administration will be followed by an Iranian nuclear attack.”
Israel conducted a series of attacks in Iran over the summer, in the knowledge that Trump was sympathetic to a “maximum pressure” strategy.
The fears were underlined last week, in the wake of Trump’s election defeat, when the president replaced much of the top leadership of the Department of Defense — including Secretary Mark Esper — with figures considered hardliners on Iran. That inflamed worries among both Democrats and European allies, said all three sources.
Biden — who enters office on Jan 21, 2021 — has not expressed any solid policy positions on Iran except to highlight his belief that the 2015 agreement (which Trump voided in 2018) had been working as intended in preventing the Iranians from developing a nuclear weapon.
Last January, Trump ordered the assassination of key Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani and an Iraqi militia commander. That boosted fears that the Iranian response would draw the US and its allies into a broader conflict.
While those fears never materialized as Iran appears willing to remain patient and see if Biden will resume talks, the Iranians have repeatedly said that they plan to take revenge for the Soleimani assassination in a time or place of their choosing.
“I doubt they’d be this foolish after waiting all year to see if Biden would win,” said a third intelligence official, who spoke in the same terms as their colleagues. “But just like I don’t think the Americans will do anything — Trump’s dangerous positions aside — I can’t promise the Saudis or Israelis won’t. The same goes for the Iranians — I don’t think they want a clash. But I know some of their leadership certainly does. Would they consider pushing some operation intended to spark things to politically isolate their own diplomats? Completely possible.”
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