Over the past few days, several testimonies have been describing a febrile and dangerous atmosphere in Iran and, in particular, in the capital Tehran. Iranians in Tehran have reported that the Revolutionary Guards and Basij militia are particularly nervous and there were persistent rumors circulating about the possibility of an “external attack” by the United States and its Israeli and GCC allies.
Two months from the end of Donald Trump’s mandate, The New York Times revealed that these rumors were at least partially substantiated. According to this report, during a recent meeting in the Oval Office, the outgoing US president asked several staff members, including Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Chief of Staff Mark Milley “If he had any options to act against the Natanz nuclear site in the coming weeks”. According to The New York Times, these senior officials “dissuaded the president from going ahead with a military strike”, invoking the probability that it could quickly degenerate into a larger conflict.
Several observations must be made. First, the idea of a strike against the Natanz nuclear installation is fully in line with the so-called “maximum pressure” strategy carried out by the United States and its Israeli and Saudi allies since 2017. The objective of this 360° strategy has been to prevent Iran from developing its nuclear capability and ballistic missile program while weakening the regime on the domestic scene, reducing its external influence and isolating it at a regional level. This multifaceted strategy was manifested by the reimposition of economic sanctions against Iran, and marked support for popular anti-regime movements in Lebanon and Iraq. This dual effort of diplomatic suffocation and economic strangulation was reinforced by military pressure from Israel (in Syria), Saudi Arabia (in Yemen) and NATO (in Iraq) climaxing, symbolically, by the elimination of General General Qassem Soleimani (January 2020).
Second, it should be noted that while the floated option of a strike against Natanz fits into the so-called “maximum pressure” strategy, it also, quite possibly, marks its culmination. One of the fundamental characteristics of this multifaceted approach has been to rely on all available options … with the notable exception of the use of force. Qualified by experts as a strategy conducted below the threshold of violence, it essentially consists in containing and stifling the regime in a brutal and systematic manner, while at all costs preventing this pressure from degenerating into direct conflict. This is the view taken by President Trump’s advisers when invoking the risks of a regional conflagration to deter him from bombing Natanz. It is also worth noting that, reacting to the New York Times article, Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei said: “There could be attempts” to attack Iran, “but, personally, I do not foresee such a thing ”. Expressing a point of view shared in the upper echelons of the Iranian regime, Rabiei added: “I don’t believe it is possible that [the Americans] want to increase insecurity in the world and in the region“.
The fact is that all of the protagonists are well aware of the dangers of a spiraling conflict and the catastrophic consequences that a clash on the traditional battlefield could have. This is why, until now, they have refrained from directly confronting each other and have instead relied on proxies. Neither Iran nor Israel and the Gulf monarchies really want to start a conflict that would escalate and engulf them in regional chaos. Despite Trump’s hot-tempered rhetoric, Washington will also most likely remain reluctant to embark on an adversarial course it knows could lead to World War III. Observers also note a certain division in the White House between supporters of the hard way and realists. Everything, up to its disclosure by The New York Times, suggests that this news flash marks the swansong of the “maximum pressure” strategy. Even the Israelis, staunch supporters of this all-out approach, have started establishing contacts with Team Biden.