WASHINGTON – President Trump asked senior advisers at a meeting in the Oval Office on Thursday if there were any opportunities to take action against Iran’s main nuclear facility in the coming weeks. The meeting came a day after international inspectors announced a significant increase in the country’s nuclear stockpile, four current and former U.S. officials said Monday.
A number of senior advisers dissuaded the president from continuing the military strike. Counselors – including Vice President Mike Pence; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; Christopher Miller, Acting Secretary of Defense; and General Mark A. Millie, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned that a strike against Iran̵
Any strike – whether by missile or cyber – will almost certainly focus on Natanz, where the International Atomic Energy Agency said on Wednesday that Iran’s uranium reserves are now 12 times larger than those allowed by the nuclear deal. Trump abandoned in 2018, the agency also noted that Iran has not allowed him access to another alleged site where there is evidence of past nuclear activity.
Mr Trump asked his best national security aides what opportunities he had and how to respond, officials said.
After Mr Pompeo and General Millie described the potential risks of military escalation, officials left the meeting, believing that a missile attack inside Iran was out of the table, according to administration officials familiar with the meeting.
Mr Trump may still be looking for ways to strike at Iranian assets and allies, including militias in Iraq, officials said. A small group of national security aides had gathered late Wednesday to discuss Iran, a day before meeting with the president.
White House officials did not respond to requests for comment.
The episode highlighted that Mr Trump still faces a number of global threats in his last weeks in power. A strike against Iran may not do well on its base, which is largely opposed to the deeper US conflict in the Middle East, but it could poison relations with Tehran, making it much harder for President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. to revive the 2015 nuclear deal on Iran, as he promised to do.
As Mr Trump fired Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper and other senior Pentagon aides last week, the Department of Defense and other national security officials have expressed private concerns that the president may launch operations, whether overt or covert. against Iran or other opponents at the end of his term.
The events of recent days are not the first time that Iranian policy has emerged in the last days of an outgoing administration. In the last days of the Bush administration in 2008, Israeli officials, worried that the incoming Obama administration would try to block it from striking Iran’s nuclear facilities, called for bombs destroying bunkers, bombers and US intelligence for an Israeli-led strike.
Vice President Dick Cheney later wrote in his memoirs that he supported the idea. President George W. Bush did not, but the result was far closer cooperation with Israel on a cyber attack on the Natanz facility, which produced about 1,000 Iranian nuclear centrifuges.
Since then, the Pentagon has repeatedly revised its strike plans. There are now traditional military as well as cyber options, and some that combine the two. Some involve direct Israeli action.
The report of the International Atomic Energy Agency concludes that Iran now has reserves 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 by a report by the Institute for Science and International Security. But it will take several months of further processing to enrich the uranium to bomb, meaning Iran will not be close to a bomb until the end of spring at the earliest – long after Mr Trump left office.
Although worrying, the amount is far below the amount of fuel Iran had before President Barack Obama reached a nuclear deal with Tehran in July 2015. At the end of the same year, under the terms of the agreement, Iran sent about 97 percent of its stockpile. of fuel for Russia – about £ 25,000 – leaving it with less than needed to build a single weapon.
Iranians have adhered to these borders even after Mr. Trump canceled US involvement in the Iranian agreement in 2018 and imposed sanctions again. Iranians began to slowly move beyond these borders 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 competed to produce new materials: Their progress is slow and steady, and they deny seeking to build weapons – although evidence stolen from the country several years ago by Israel clearly shows that this was the plan before 2003
Mr Trump has claimed from the 2016 campaign that Iran is hiding some of its actions and betraying its commitments; the inspectors’ report last week gave him the first partial evidence to support that view. The report criticizes Iran for failing to answer a series of questions about a warehouse in Tehran where inspectors found uranium particles, leading to suspicions that it was once some kind of nuclear processing facility. The report says Iran’s answers are “not technically reliable.”
Earlier, the International Atomic Energy Agency complained that inspectors were barred from fully inspecting some alleged sites.
It’s not just the US military that is considering opportunities. Mr Pompeo, officials said, was closely following developments in Iraq to hint at aggression by Iran or its proxy militias against US diplomats or troops stationed there.
Mr Pompeo has already drawn up plans to close the US embassy in Baghdad due to fears of potential threats, although in recent days he seemed ready to leave that decision to the next administration. Mortar and rocket attacks on the embassy have waned in recent weeks, and the task of closing the world’s largest US diplomatic mission could take months.
But officials said that could change if some Americans were killed before Acting Day.
Officials are particularly upset by the three-year anniversary of the U.S. strike that killed Major General Qasim Suleimani, commander of Iran’s elite forces in the Islamic Guards Revolutionary Corps, and the Iraqi leader of Iran-backed militias – deaths leaders regularly insist they have not yet retaliated.
Mr Pompeo, who was the fiercest supporter of Mr Trump’s advisers to dig up Iran while the administration still can, has recently made it clear that the death of an American is a red line that could provoke a military response.
It would also increase tensions between Washington and Baghdad. Diplomats said Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi would almost certainly object to the killing of Iraqis – even Iranian-backed militiamen – on Iraqi soil by US forces already facing demands to leave.