No one thought President Donald Trump would leave quietly. But would he go so far as to start a military confrontation with Iran on his way out?
Recent military movements by the Pentagon in the Middle East (ostensibly to deter Iran from attacking American troops on the anniversary of the assassination of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani), combined with Israeli media reports that Saudi Arabia and Israel are pressing Trump to bomb Iran before he leaves office, has fueled speculation that Trump may be planning his biggest — and likely most disastrous — stunt yet.
Trump has made more threats of war against Iran than any other country during his four years as President. As late as last month, he ordered the military to prepare options against Iranian nuclear facilities. Though the New York Times reported that Trump’s aides derailed those plans, U.S. troop movements in the past few weeks may suggest otherwise.
Since October, the Pentagon has deployed 2,000 additional troops as well as an extra squadron of fighter planes to Saudi Arabia. It has also sent B-52 bombers on missions in the Persian Gulf three times, kept the USS Nimitz close to Iran, and announced that it is sending a Tomahawk-firing submarine just outside of Iranian waters. Moreover, Israel — whose officials have confirmed to several U.S. newspapers that it was behind the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh last month — has sent a nuclear-equipped submarine to the Persian Gulf.
Officially, all of these military maneuvers are aimed at “deterring” Iran, even though Israel assassinated an Iranian official in Iran and not the other way around. “The United States continues to deploy combat-ready capabilities into the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility to deter any potential adversary, and make clear that we are ready and able to respond to any aggression directed at Americans or our interests,” said Marine Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, chief of U.S. Central Command, according to the Washington Post.
Not surprisingly, Tehran has interpreted the measures as threats and provocations, similar to how the United States would perceive Iranian warships posturing off Florida’s coast.
What has further raised fears of an imminent military confrontation is the Trump administration’s reported refusal to allow the Biden transition team to meet with defense intelligence agencies. The move has not only caused furor in the Biden team but also raised eyebrows internationally.
Tobias Ellwood, Conservative British MP and Chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, speculated on Twitter that Trump was blocking Biden’s intelligence briefings “because he has a couple of significant operations up his sleeve which may get the green light before 20 Jan.”
Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden, found Trump’s conduct “strange,” and asked if there had been “recent changes related to planned or possible imminent operations?”
What makes matters worse, and suggests that rather than seeking to deter Iran, Trump may be setting the stage for a war of choice, are statements by senior Pentagon officials asserting that the Iran threat is exaggerated. One senior defense official with direct involvement in this issue told CNN that there is “not a single piece of corroborating intel” suggesting an attack by Iran may be imminent.
If Trump is seeking a confrontation with Iran during his last weeks of his Presidency, what could be his motivation? Two things need to be made clear first: Whatever his reason, he is likely miscalculating. His entire Iran policy has been a disastrous failure and he has shown no ability to learn from his mistakes during these past four years. Secondly, his track record suggests that the more desperate he gets, the more reckless he becomes. Desperately seeking to cling on to power, he is exploring all ways to overturn the elections, even toying with the idea of calling for martial law. The disgraced General Michael Flynn, who Trump pardoned this month, has even suggested that Trump should deploy the military in ‘swing states’ to ‘rerun’ the election.
Could Trump seek to start a military confrontation with Iran in hopes of creating enough chaos as to prevent Joe Biden from taking office in January? There is no reason to believe such a gambit would work, yet the insanity of the idea is not a convincing reason as to why a desperate Trump wouldn’t try it.
At a minimum, he would have the backing of large sways of Evangelical Chistians who view confrontation with Iran as the fulfillment of the prophecy of the End Times in the biblical book of Revelations, as well as that of the GOP’s biggest financial backer, Sheldon Adelson. Trump has already acquiesced to every request of Adelson (except war with Iran) — from moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, to accepting Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, to the release of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, who flew to Israel this week on Adelson’s private jet. The AP described his release as the “latest in a long line of diplomatic gifts given to Netanyahu by President Donald Trump.”
Even if confrontation with Iran won’t prevent Biden from becoming President, Trump may calculate that it will kill the Iran nuclear deal once and for all, and ensure continued support for Trump by Adelson and the Evangelicals, which in turn can help Trump strengthen his grip over the GOP even after his presidency. Israeli and Arab media reported today that Saudi Arabia and Israel has been pressuring Trump to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities before he leaves office precisely to prevent Biden from returning to the JCPOA.
Whatever his calculation may be, there is clearly a risk that the last three weeks of Trump’s presidency may be the most perilous.
This article originally appeared in Responsible Statecraft.