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Iran warns of ‘crushing response’ after Trump said to mull strikes on nuke sites

Threat follows NY Times report that US president last week weighed military options, but was dissuaded by aides; Pompeo, present at those talks, to arrive in Israel on Wednesday

Iran's nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz, 300 kilometers (186 miles) south of the capital Tehran, on April, 9, 2007. (Hasan Sarbakhshian/AP)
Iran's nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz, 300 kilometers (186 miles) south of the capital Tehran, on April, 9, 2007. (Hasan Sarbakhshian/AP)

Iran warned on Tuesday of a “crushing response” in the wake of reports US President Donald Trump convened top advisers last week to ask if he had options to strike Iranian nuclear sites during his final weeks in office.

“Any action against the Iranian nation would certainly face a crushing response,” said government spokesperson Ali Rabiei in remarks streamed on an official government news site, according to the Reuters news agency.

The New York Times reported Monday that Trump had made inquiries about the possibility of strikes, but was dissuaded by warnings that it could lead to a wider conflict.

Trump convened top officials on Thursday, a day after the UN nuclear watchdog said Iran had stockpiled more than 12 times more enriched uranium than the 2015 nuclear deal allows, the Times reported, citing four current and former US officials.

US President Donald Trump arrives to address the nation from the White House on the ballistic missile strike that Iran launched against Iraqi air bases housing US troops accompanied by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, center, and US Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein, January 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Among those present were Vice President Mike Pence; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; acting defense secretary Christopher C. Miller; and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the report said.

Trump asked them how he should respond to the International Atomic Energy Agency report and what his options were. The Times said the focus of any attack would almost certainly be the heavily fortified Natanz nuclear center.

Pompeo and Miley reportedly warned that a major strike, whether with missiles or by a cyberattack, could easily escalate into a major regional conflict.

The report said they left Thursday’s meeting believing that Trump had taken a missile strike off the table, but could still be looking at a more measured response against Iran or its allies.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo listens during the third annual US-Qatar Strategic Dialogue at the State Department in Washington, DC on September 14, 2020. (ERIN SCOTT / POOL / AFP)

Pompeo is set to arrive in Israel on Wednesday. He will likely meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, according to the Walla news site.

“If I were the Iranians, I would not feel at ease,” Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said in response to The New York Times report, clarifying that he was not directly aware of any deliberations on the matter by the Trump administration.

“It is very important that the Iranians know that if, indeed, they suddenly dash toward high levels of enrichment, in the direction of nuclear weaponry, they are liable to encounter the military might of the United States — and also, perhaps, of other countries,” Steinitz told Army Radio on Tuesday.

Trump’s most high-profile attack on Iran, when the US killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in a January 3 drone strike at Baghdad’s airport, resulted in a limited Iranian response.

The Pentagon has a wide range of strike options for Iran, including military, cyber and combination plans, the Times report said, noting that some called for direct action by Israel.

Israel has been blamed for an attack on an advanced centrifuge development and assembly plant at Natanz in July. It has also been blamed, together with the US, for the Stuxnet virus that sabotaged Iranian enrichment centrifuges a decade ago.

A building Iran claims was damaged by a fire at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility some 200 miles (322 kilometers) south of Tehran, on July 2, 2020. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

The New York Times also reported this week that Israel assassinated Al-Qaeda’s No. 2 in Tehran in recent months at the behest of the US.

Monday’s report highlighted fears that Trump could seek to dramatically influence events in his final few weeks in office (even though he has not conceded the election) in a bid to tie US President-elect Joe Biden’s hands on issues like Iran.

In a quarterly report distributed to members last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency also said it still had questions from the discovery last year of particles of uranium of manmade origin at a site outside Tehran not declared by Iran.

Illustrative: Iran’s alleged atomic warehouse in Turquzabad, Tehran. (YouTube screenshot)

The United States and Israel had been pressing the IAEA for some time to look into the Turquzabad facility, which Netanyahu described to the UN in 2018 as a “secret atomic warehouse.”

In the current report, the IAEA said the “compositions of these isotopically altered particles” found there were “similar to particles found in Iran in the past, originating from imported centrifuge components.” It said it found Iran’s response to questions last month “unsatisfactory.”

“Following an assessment of this new information, the agency informed Iran that it continues to consider Iran’s response to be not technically credible,” the IAEA wrote this week. “A full and prompt explanation from Iran… is needed.”

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