WASHINGTON – President Trump asked senior advisers at an Oval Office meeting on Thursday if he has options for taking action against Iran’s main nuclear site in the coming weeks. The meeting came a day after international inspectors reported a significant increase in the country’s nuclear material stocks, four current and former US officials said on Monday.
A series of senior advisers dissuaded the president from launching a military strike. Councilors – including Vice President Mike Pence; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; Christopher C. Miller, Acting Secretary of Defense; and General Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – have warned that a strike on Iranian facilities could easily escalate into a larger conflict in the final weeks of Mr. Trump’s presidency.
Any strike – whether by missile or cyber – would almost certainly be focused on Natanz, where the International Atomic Energy Agency reported on Wednesday that Iran’s stockpile of uranium was now 12 times larger than what was cleared by the nuclear deal that Mr Trump abandoned in 2018. The agency also noted that Iran had not allowed him access to another suspicious site where there was evidence of nuclear activity past.
Mr. Trump asked his senior national security aides what options were available and how to respond to them, officials said.
After Mr Pompeo and General Milley described the potential risks of military escalation, officials left the meeting believing that a missile attack inside Iran was irrelevant, officials said. administration informed of the meeting.
Mr Trump may still be looking for ways to strike Iranian assets and allies, including militias in Iraq, officials said. A small group of national security aides met Wednesday evening to discuss Iran, the day before the meeting with the president.
White House officials did not respond to requests for comment.
The episode highlighted how Mr. Trump still faces a range of global threats during his final weeks in office. A strike against Iran may not work well for its base, which is widely opposed to a deeper US conflict in the Middle East, but it could poison relations with Tehran so that it would be much more difficult for the president-elect. Joseph R. Biden Jr. to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, as he pledged to do.
Since Mr. Trump sacked Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and other senior Pentagon officials last week, the Department of Defense and other national security officials have privately expressed concern over the fact that the president could launch operations, open or covert, against Iran or other adversaries in the end. of its mandate.
The events of the past few days are not the first time that Iranian politics have emerged in the final days of an outgoing administration. During the last days of the Bush administration in 2008, Israeli officials, worried that the new Obama administration would seek to prevent it from hitting Iranian nuclear facilities, called on the United States for bunker bombs, bombers and intelligence assistance for an Israel-led project. strike.
Vice President Dick Cheney later wrote in his memoir that he supported the idea. President George W. Bush did not, but the result was much closer collaboration with Israel in a cyber attack on the Natanz facility, which destroyed around 1,000 of the nuclear centrifuges. Iranian.
The Pentagon has since revised its strike plans several times. It now has traditional military options as well as cyber options, and some combine the two. Some involve direct Israeli action.
The International Atomic Agency report concluded that Iran now has a stockpile of more than 2,442 kilograms, or more than 5,385 pounds, of low enriched uranium. That’s enough to produce about two nuclear weapons, according to an analysis of the Institute for Science and International Security report. But it would take several months of additional processing to enrich the uranium with bomb-grade material, meaning Iran wouldn’t be close to a bomb until late spring at the earliest – long after Mr. Trump would have left office.
While the amount is concerning, it is far less than the amount of fuel Iran had before President Obama reached a nuclear deal with Tehran in July 2015. By the end of this year, according to the terms of the Okay, Iran shipped about 97% of its fuel stockpile to Russia – about 25,000 pounds – leaving it with less than it would need to build a single weapon.
The Iranians have respected those limits even after Mr. Trump canceled U.S. participation in the Iran deal in 2018 and reimposed sanctions. The Iranians started slowly breaking out of those limits last year, saying that if Mr. Trump felt free to violate his terms, they would not continue to abide by them.
But the Iranians have hardly run to produce new material: their progress has been slow and steady, and they have denied seeking to manufacture a weapon – although evidence stolen from the country several years ago by Israel clearly showed that was the plan before 2003.
Mr. Trump has argued since the 2016 campaign that Iran was hiding some of its actions and deceiving its commitments; last week’s inspectors’ report provided him with the first partial evidence to support this view. The report criticized Iran for failing to answer a series of questions about a warehouse in Tehran where inspectors found uranium particles, suggesting it was once some sort of nuclear processing facility. The report said Iran’s responses were “not technically credible”.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has previously complained that inspectors were not allowed to examine suspicious sites in detail.
It is not just the US military that is considering options. Mr Pompeo, officials said, is closely monitoring events on the ground in Iraq for any suspicion of aggression by Iran or its proxy militias against US diplomats or troops stationed there. low.
Mr Pompeo has already made plans to close the US embassy in Baghdad over fears of potential threats, although in recent days he has appeared willing to leave that decision to the next administration. Mortar and rocket attacks on the embassy have waned in recent weeks, and the task of shutting down the world’s largest US diplomatic mission could take months.
But officials said that could change if Americans were killed before inauguration day.
Officials are particularly worried about the January 3 anniversary of the US strike that killed General Qassim Suleimani, the commander of the elite Iranian Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Iraqi leader of a militia backed by Iran Iranian leaders regularly insist that they have not yet retaliated.
Mr. Pompeo, who has been the strongest supporter among Trump’s advisers of hobbling Iran while the administration still can, more recently indicated that the death of an American was a red line that could provoke a military response.
It would also increase tensions between Washington and Baghdad. Diplomats said Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi would almost certainly oppose the killing of Iraqis – even Iranian-backed militiamen – on Iraqi soil by US forces who are already facing demands to leave .