Israel, US planning ‘covert ops’ against Iran as Trump’s term ends, report says

Security officials said seeking to increase pressure on Tehran over its nuclear program ahead of Biden presidency, believing Iran won't take military action with Trump in office

US President Donald Trump, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walk to a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, January 27, 2020. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Israel and the US are planning to increase pressure on Iran with “covert operations” and economic sanctions during US President Donald Trump’s final weeks in office, according to a Friday Israeli TV report. Their assessment is that Tehran will not respond militarily before the end of his term, the report said.

The report, on Channel 13 news, did not elaborate. Among other covert operations against Iran’s rogue nuclear program, Israel and the US were reportedly responsible for infiltrating the Stuxnet computer virus to sabotage parts of Iran’s nuclear enrichment process a decade ago, and for more recent sabotage attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities. Israel’s Mossad spy agency spirited out a vast trove of Iranian documentation regarding the regime’s nuclear program, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed in 2018. Israel has also been linked in reports to the killings of several Iranian nuclear scientists, and last week the New York Times reported that Israeli agents killed Al-Qaeda’s No. 2 Abu Muhammad al-Masri in Tehran in August at the behest of the US.

On Monday, the New York Times reported US President Donald Trump convened top advisers to ask if he had options to strike Iranian nuclear sites during his last weeks in office, but was dissuaded with warnings it could lead to a wider conflict. Trump convened top officials 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.

According to the same Channel 13 report Friday, the Israel Defense Forces and Mossad are preparing for President-elect Joe Biden’s expected return to negotiations with Iran over the 2015 nuclear deal, which Biden has vowed to re-enter after taking office. The IDF and Mossad aim to work with the US to secure a more favorable deal with Iran, the report said.

Biden is expected to take a more conciliatory approach to Iran than Trump, who has levied punishing sanctions against Tehran and killed its top general in January. Israeli officials believe Iran is fearful of American retaliation to any provocation while Trump is in office, leaving Jerusalem and the current administration a window to prepare for the Biden presidency, the report said.

Highlighting the potential threat to Tehran, the Trump administration’s Special Representative to Iran, Elliot Abrams, issued a warning to the Islamic Republic on Friday.

“If Iran and its proxies engage in military activities and terrorist activities that kill Americans, they’re going to be sorry,” Abrams told the Al Arabiya news site.

Iranian protesters burn Israeli and US flags on June 8, 2018. (AP/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Iraqi officials recently said Iran has instructed allies across the Middle East to be on high alert and avoid provoking tensions with the US that could give the outgoing Trump administration cause to launch attacks in the US president’s final weeks in office, according to a Friday report.

Biden lambasted Trump for withdrawing the US from Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, and during the campaign pledged to return to a renegotiated version of the agreement if he won the election.

The Foreign Ministry has also been holding discussions on Iran, the Walla news site reported earlier this week. Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi set up a small team to develop a strategy to keep Jerusalem informed of the Biden administration’s efforts to re-enter the deal, the report said.

Ashkenazi told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in a closed session last week that the government should refrain from repeating the mistakes that left it isolated as the Obama administration negotiated the deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Ashkenazi also told lawmakers last week that the Foreign Ministry believes Biden will make good on his election promise to return to the accord, Walla reported.

Within the current Israeli government, there is no uniform policy on the deal, with Ashkenazi and Defense Minister Benny Gantz believed to hold a more moderate position than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who openly backed Trump’s sanctions campaign.

Ashkenazi said the goal of the team he’ll be heading will be to ensure that Israeli concerns are taken into account when the US and Iran renegotiate the deal.

Biden was vice president when former US president Barack Obama signed the deal with Iran in 2015.

An Iranian cleric looks at domestically built surface-to-surface missiles at a military show marking the 40th anniversary of Iran’s Islamic Revolution that toppled the US-backed shah, at Imam Khomeini Grand Mosque, in Tehran, Iran, on February 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Biden argued that Trump’s withdrawal signaled to American allies that it could not be trusted to hold agreements and that while the accord may not have been perfect, it had been effective in blocking Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon.

When it was being negotiated, the pact was stridently denounced by Netanyahu, who argued that it did not put in place sufficient safeguards to prevent Iran from seeking nuclear weapons capabilities.

Since Trump pulled out of the accord and began imposing crushing economic sanctions on Tehran — a move that was cheered by Netanyahu and other Israeli officials — the Islamic Republic has retaliated by producing more and more highly enriched fissile material in violation of the agreement, getting closer and closer to a bomb, while still leaving room for a return to negotiations.

The UN’s atomic watchdog agency said earlier this month that Iran continues to increase its stockpile of low-enriched uranium far beyond the limits set in the accord and to enrich it to a greater purity than permitted.

Taking a step back from the brink, Iran’s foreign minister said Tuesday that Tehran was willing to return to the deal if Biden lifts sanctions on Iran after entering the White House.

“We are ready to discuss how the United States can re-enter the accord,” Mohammad Javad Zarif told Iranian media.

“If Mr. Biden is willing to fulfill US commitments, we too can immediately return to our full commitments in the accord… and negotiations are possible within the framework of the P5+1,” Zarif said, referring to the six world powers that signed onto the deal.

The Trump administration is reportedly planning a bevy of wide-ranging sanctions on Iran to make it more difficult for the incoming administration to reenter the JCPOA.

Earlier this month, former Biden aide Amos Hochstein told Israel’s Channel 12 that rejoining the Iran nuclear deal was “high on his agenda” and that the US president-elect would move to reenter the international pact shortly after taking office.

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