The war drums started beating when Joe Biden was declared to be US President-elect, and Iran is again the target. Senior American officials made unprecedented trips while the country was still digesting the defeat of sitting President Donald Trump, raising suspicions that he is planning something in the Middle East before leaving the White House. Indeed, such trips even took place before the election.
US Defence Secretary Mark Esper, for example, went to Israel for a few hours less than a week before the presidential election in early November. Esper met with his Israeli counterpart Benny Gantz to discuss defence cooperation and challenges posed by Iran.
The US official was fired by Trump days after the election results started to come in. Many have cited Esper’s refusal to deploy the army against the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests as a reason for his dismissal. However, there are reports which suggest that the BLM protests were not the only issue over which Esper disagreed with Trump. He apparently also had a different opinion to both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Trump about how to deal with Iran.
People regarded as Trump loyalists and who will take a hard line against Iran have been appointed to senior positions in the Pentagon. This has added to the unease in the Gulf regarding possible actions by the US and Israel against Iran.
This is compounded by the fact that, at about the same time, Israel bombed Syria. The air strikes were against what it called a “wide range of Syrian and Iranian targets” in the country. The message was clearly that such strikes will continue despite Trump’s defeat.
Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted after the US election what he said was a “sincere message” to Iran’s neighbours: “Trump’s gone in 70 days but we’ll remain here forever.” Zarif’s timely tweet was yet another indication that there is indeed something being planned against Iran by the US and Israel.
This week, reports emerged that Netanyahu has made a secret visit to Saudi Arabia for talks with the de facto ruler of the Kingdom, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. According to unnamed Israeli sources, the head of the Mossad spy agency, Yossi Cohen, accompanied Netanyahu. The Saudi government has denied that such a meeting took place.
Israel has intensified its targeting of Iranian military installations and interests abroad, and has recently gone far beyond rhetoric and taken the war into the streets of Tehran. Last week, it was revealed that Israeli assassins killed Abu Mohammed Al-Masri, the number two in Al-Qaida, in the Iranian capital in August. The US is said to have provided intelligence to the assassins. Al-Masri is alleged to have been the mastermind behind the bombings of US Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998. His killing followed the assassination of Iran’s Major General Qasem Soleimani in a US drone attack near Baghdad International Airport in early January.
Trump has given blind support to Israel under Netanyahu when it comes to dealing with Iran, so the Israeli leader will want to achieve something in this respect before the president leaves the White House. Importantly, Iran is perhaps the last card that Netanyahu can use to gain public support in Israel and avoid political challenges and calls for him to resign.
There is almost a consensus in Israel that Iran is an existential threat. Removing any potential that it might have to harm Israel could revive Netanyahu’s credibility and ease internal political pressure. Moreover, it is unlikely that he will get the same kind of support that he enjoys from Trump when Biden takes office.
In May 2018 Trump withdrew the US from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal with Iran; Biden will probably take America back into it. This re-engagement with Iran is likely to give Tehran a lifeline as well as support from Europe. As such, Netanyahu’s window for action against Iran is small, and getting smaller every day. An attack against Iran thus seems likely before Trump leaves the White House in January.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.