A report Wednesday claimed that the Israeli army has been preparing for the possibility that US President Donald Trump will order a strike on Iran before leaving office in January.
Citing senior Israeli officials, Axios said there is no specific information that such an attack is imminent, but Israeli leaders believe the US president’s final weeks in the job will be “a very sensitive period.”
The officials said Washington would likely update Israel before carrying out military action against the Islamic Republic.
Still, there were concerns it would not give the Israel Defense Forces enough time to prepare for possible retaliations targeting Israel, including from Iran’s proxies in Lebanon and Syria, according to the report.
Last Monday, The New York Times reported that Trump had asked top advisers 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 the officials a day after the UN nuclear watchdog said Iran had stockpiled over 12 times more enriched uranium than the 2015 nuclear deal allows, the report said, citing four current and former US officials.
The US this week also rapidly deployed several heavy bombers to the Middle East in an apparent threat to Iran.
US President-elect Joe Biden is expected to take a softer, more diplomatic approach to Iran than Trump, who pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal world powers signed with Tehran and employed a so-called “maximum pressure” campaign of heavy economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
Though analysts say this effort has created leverage for future negotiations, the tactic has not yet borne fruit in terms of halting Iran’s nuclear efforts — indeed the Islamic Republic has amassed far more nuclear material and at higher levels of enrichment under the campaign — nor has it curbed Tehran’s regional hegemony ambitions.
“Until now, Israel did not have to lead the fight against Iran because the leader of the free world did that,” Likud minister Tzachi Hanegbi said on Wednesday morning, in an interview with Army Radio. “If the US goes back to the nuclear deal, Israel will be left to make decisions alone.”
Biden, who was vice president to Barack Obama when the 2015 accord was signed, has said that he plans to return to the agreement — strongly opposed by Israel — as a basis for further negotiations with Iran.
The Trump administration is reportedly planning a bevy of wide-ranging sanctions on Iran to make it more difficult for the incoming administration to rejoin the nuclear deal.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in an apparent message to Biden and his team, warned on Sunday against re-engaging with Iran on the 2015 nuclear deal.
“We will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said at an annual memorial event for Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, in the southern kibbutz Sde Boker where Ben-Gurion lived.
“There can be no going back to the previous nuclear agreement. We must stick to an uncompromising policy of ensuring that Iran will not develop nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said.
Last Friday, Channel 13 reported that Israel and the US were planning to increase pressure on Iran with “covert operations” and economic sanctions during Trump’s final weeks in office. Jerusalem and Washington assess that Tehran will not respond militarily before the end of Trump’s term, according to the unsourced report.
The report did not elaborate on the nature of actions that may be taken.
Among other covert operations against Iran’s rogue nuclear program, Israel and the US were reportedly responsible for introducing 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, 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.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.