Trump and Iran: beware a January surprise - Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher (January 4, 2021)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. January 3 came and went, and Iran did not retaliate against the US, Israel or anyone else for the assassination exactly a year earlier of Quds Force leader Qassem Soleimani. Should we feel relieved?

A. Yes, mildly relieved. The non-event of January 3 was a statement that from Iran’s perspective, acts of war--against the US and/or Israel--are currently not on the agenda. Terrorist provocations by proxy, such as a major attack on Aden’s airport in Yemen last week and the occasional skirmish on Israel’s northern borders, perhaps. Protest and mourning demonstrations by Shiite militia in Iraq, definitely. A demonstrative escalation of nuclear enrichment to a dangerous 20 percent, certainly.

But not acts of war. By exercising restraint on January 3, and for that matter by avoiding any game-changing response to President Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign over the past three years, Iran’s Islamist leaders are signaling that they prefer to wait for the Biden presidency. They hope the Biden administration, in coordination with the other members of the 5+1 consortium that negotiated the JCPOA nuclear deal in 2015, will act quickly to renew that deal.

Q. So much for Iranian intentions. But Trump’s? Israel’s?

A. The US deployed an aircraft carrier and a submarine in the Persian Gulf, beefing up the Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet in anticipation of an Iranian act of retaliation. It flew B-52 strategic bombers to the Gulf from North Dakota, conspicuously refueling in the air over Tel Aviv. Simultaneously, Israel conspicuously sent a submarine through the Suez Canal to the Red Sea and its air force went on high alert.

But January 3 came and went. The US B-52s flew home and the American naval reinforcements were on their way out of the Gulf even before January 3. So this was a non-event that was welcomed in most quarters. The last thing PM Netanyahu needs is escalation with Iran or its proxies at a time when Israel is locked in a new election cycle accompanied by a third wave of corona. If the opportunity to assassinate an Iranian nuclear or militia leader or to bomb Iranian proxy forces in Syria presents itself in the weeks ahead, that might be a different matter.

But beyond that, Netanyahu has good reason to be cautious now. What he might have contemplated against Iran with Trump’s encouragement a year ago, he would hesitate to do now. He has presumably communicated that caution to Trump.

Q. Indeed, even without an Iranian retaliatory provocation or excuse, President Trump could opt to attack Iran’s nuclear infrastructure before leaving office on January 20 . . .

A. This, I submit, is the strategic question of the hour. Once January 5 and 6 are behind us, and assuming that Trump’s effort to sabotage congressional approval of the electoral college vote has failed and Georgia’s runoff election is over, Trump has two weeks left in the White House to indulge in dangerous magical thinking regarding both his legacy and the scorched earth he is scheming to leave for Biden.

Would the US military cooperate with a ‘mad man’ operational order to attack Iran emanating from the White House? On January 4, all ten living former secretaries of defense called clearly on the US military to not allow itself to be exploited for political reasons. A US attack on Iran in mid-January would almost certainly be a political rather than a strategic act. Netanyahu, if approached by Trump, should keep this in mind too.

Q. Let’s go back a year. On Trump’s order, the US executed the precision targeted killing of Soleimani, along with the leader of Iraq’s pro-Iranian militias. Iran’s response has been meek: a missile barrage at a US base in Iraq; cyber attacks. So can the January 3, 2020 assassinations by the US be considered a success?

A. Characteristically, Trump appears to have authorized the Soleimani assassination on a whim. He certainly did not engage in serious strategic thinking, which he is manifestly incapable of. Accordingly, and leaving aside important moral and ethical issues regarding the targeted killing of such a high-level Iranian official, the Soleimani assassination was surprisingly a qualified success.

It removed from the scene the strategic mastermind of Iran’s hegemonic expansion westward into Iraq, Syria and, via Hezbollah proxy, Lebanon. That effort has not ended, but it has been significantly weakened over the past year. The elimination of Soleimani together with the leader of Iraq’s Shiite militias, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, provided breathing room to Iraq’s moderate new prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, to come to grips with the forces of anarchy there. Note, though, that the Soleimani assassination has weakened but not deterred. Iran appears as determined as ever to project power in Israel’s direction, even if it has yet to find and deploy someone with Soleimani’s command skills and charisma. Soleimani’s lackluster successor at the helm of the Quds Force, Esmail Qaani, has over the past year visited his troops in Iraq at least six times and in Syria at least three times.

Q. Now fast forward. What reality will Biden inherit if Trump does something truly extreme in the Iran arena prior to January 20? Alternatively, what will Biden’s options look like if we get to January 20 uneventfully?

A. The first contingency is difficult to predict insofar as we do not know what Trump’s ‘January surprise’ might be. If the US attack is massive, e.g., bombing Iran’s known nuclear installations, all bets are off. There might be no Iran nuclear project for Biden’s team to discuss, but there would certainly be an extremely aggressive and angry Iran for the entire world to deal with. And it would be bent on renewing its nuclear program with no holds barred.

Assuming something of a lesser order of destruction, though, it seems safe to posit that Iran would seek to avoid retaliating directly against US military forces, except those in Iraq, or against American civilians through a terror attack. It would seek revenge but not escalation.

Beyond the territory of Iraq, Tehran would stick to the realm of cyber attack and/or instruct Hezbollah to execute a relatively limited rocket attack on northern Israel that the latter would respond to without escalating a conflict. It might launch another anonymous hi-tech drone and cruise missile attack on Saudi oil installations as it did against Abqaiq and Khurais in September 2019, just to vent its anger and demonstrate its capabilities. It has already threatened Israel and the US with a “sharp and painful” response.

But this is business as usual in the Iran arena. It draws on Tehran’s proven capacity to deploy throughout the region what the authoritative (and friendly) Conflicts Forum threateningly calls Iran’s conventional ‘swarm’ and ‘smart’ ant’s hive of micro weapons. This model more or less corresponds with Iran’s responses to provocative assassinations or attacks during the past two years. And if nothing happens prior to January 20? Biden is committed to renewing discussion of a new JCPOA, but his strategic-planning team has indicated a demand to expand that pact to include Iran’s missile arsenal, its behavior in Syria, and extension of the timetables for sunset clauses. The incoming administration demands that Iran reverse all the steps toward nuclear expansion that it has taken under (and against) Trump.

Here Biden appears to enjoy at least a degree of support from the three European signatories to the JCPOA, Germany, France and the UK. They are “deeply worried” about Iran’s current nuclear expansion plans. Israel and the Gulf Arabs are also already weighing in with demands for an enhanced set of restrictions on Iran’s nuclear and other capabilities. Unlike before 2015 when the Obama administration was negotiating the JCPOA, Biden today confronts an overtly united and coordinated Arab-Israel strategic lobbying front regarding Iran.

In sharp contrast, Iran demands to simply go back to the 2015 version of the JCPOA, sunset clauses and all. So in the best case from Biden’s standpoint, renewed talks with Iran will be lengthy and difficult. In any event, Iran’s June 2021 elections and Biden’s need to deal with the legacy of Trump’s disastrous and lethal mismanagement of the corona crisis are likely to delay serious US-Iran contacts for a while. All this, assuming we get through the next two weeks or so and arrive unscathed to January 20.

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