It's Debatable

Will Trump Try to Bomb Iran Before He Leaves the White House?

This is a lame-duck presidency unlike any other and the potential for surprises—and conflict—are high.

By Emma Ashford, a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and Matthew Kroenig, deputy director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council.
U.S. President Donald Trump prepares to present the Medal of Honor to Sergeant Major Thomas P. Payne on September 11, 2020 in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Donald Trump prepares to present the Medal of Honor to Sergeant Major Thomas P. Payne on September 11, 2020 in Washington, D.C. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Matthew Kroenig: It has been an interesting couple of weeks. There has been a slow transition process to the new administration. Trump fired Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and other senior national security officials, leading some to fear that a coup was underway. And everyone is speculating about who will land cabinet posts in a Biden administration and what that will mean for the future of U.S. foreign policy.

Emma Ashford: I heard we’re actually transitioning to the second Trump administration. Of course, it was from a pretty non-reputable source: Mike Pompeo, secretary of state.

But even most Republicans now accept that the election is officially over, and that Biden won. In Washington that can mean only one thing: jockeying for positions in a new administration! But other than Michèle Flournoy—the perennial next Secretary of Defense—we don’t actually know a lot about Biden’s potential national security appointments yet.

Anyone you have your eye on in particular? Or any foreign policy issues?

MK: Biden’s long-time confidant Tony Blinken is a near lock for national security adviser. There was talk of Susan Rice for secretary of state, but Senate Republicans say she’ll never be confirmed. And her past closeness to the party now involved in a civil war against the Ethiopian government could make her politically unpalatable for other reasons.

Regardless of who lands these posts, they might inherit a changed landscape in the greater Middle East. According to press reports, Trump may pull out of Afghanistan and bomb Iran all before Jan. 20. It could be a busy holiday season for national security professionals.

EA: Ah, Donald Trump, the world’s foremost dove. I remember when the New York Times ran an opinion article hailing Trump as “Donald the Dove.” And here we are only four years later, and the man has barely managed to pull 2,000 more troops out of Afghanistan, and is suggesting he might bomb Iran. I doubt even this Afghanistan move would be enough to actually fulfill his 2016 campaign promise to end the United States’ wars overseas.

MK: It is for these reasons that I warmed to Trump while he was in office. I worried about many of his proposed policies on the campaign trail, but by the spring of 2017, he showed he was comfortable with American power, promising to build a nuclear arsenal at “the top of the pack” and striking Assad for gassing his own people.

EA: I bet you’re not pleased about the Afghanistan decision, though?

MK: Pulling out would be the wrong move. The Afghan government would likely fall to the Taliban without U.S. support and that is not an outcome I want to see. People talk about ending endless wars, but U.S. forces are there at the behest of the Afghan government, helping them secure their country. No one complains about endless wars because we still have troops in Germany and Japan.

EA: The last I checked, U.S. troops in Germany weren’t actively fighting insurgents. Twenty-two servicemen and women died in Afghanistan last year alone.

U.S. strategy for Afghanistan is effectively non-existent. The troops there are engaged in a perennial war with an enemy that wasn’t beaten with ten times the troops. And what’s the plan? Just leave troops there forever? I rarely give Trump credit for anything, but his decision to talk to the Taliban, and to pull troops from Afghanistan is long overdue in U.S. foreign policy.

MK: So you would be OK with the Taliban taking back control of the country?

EA: I wouldn’t be thrilled about it. It would be bad for liberty, for women’s rights, and for the Afghan population. But the fact I dislike something doesn’t necessarily make it a national security threat. There’s no evidence the Taliban will go back to hosting terrorist groups, and political processes like the Doha talks can work to tie that objective to concrete incentives that make it less likely.

MK: But the United States won’t have any leverage in the peace talks if it retreats regardless of what happens at the negotiating table. And there is a strategy: help the Afghan government control the capital and most of the country even while recognizing it’s not possible to decisively defeat the Taliban. That is a stable and tolerable outcome that can be achieved at a reasonable cost. Not all foreign policy problems can be solved; this is one we will just have to manage.

EA: What you describe as a tolerable outcome is effectively a perpetual U.S. military presence in the country. For how long? It’s been almost 20 years at this point, and those “reasonable costs” are still being borne by U.S. troops and their families.

And my bigger point is that Washington can effectively achieve the same aims without a major presence on the ground in Afghanistan. The U.S. military is already adept at using drones—if perhaps, too willing—and other remote capabilities to strike at terrorist groups abroad if needed, and always retains the option to send troops back to Afghanistan if the Taliban invites al Qaeda back in. If we’re considering U.S. interests—rather than Afghan ones—there’s no real difference between these strategies!

MK: There is no shot clock in international security. U.S. troops should stay as long as they have to. Again, no one is counting the years for U.S. deployments in other allied and security partner nations. And it is much easier to stay than it is to withdraw now only to fight one’s way back into a difficult situation later.

We might agree on one point, however. Trump is the elected commander-in-chief and, if his intention is to pull out, then the Pentagon should do its best to responsibly carry out that order.

EA: If the order is legal, absolutely. Military leaders have a responsibility to refuse unconstitutional or illegal orders, like committing war crimes, or dispersing peaceful protesters by force. But on something like troop withdrawals, if the president says “jump,” the Pentagon response should be: “How high?”

I don’t know how much credence to put into the rumors that Trump fired much of the civilian Pentagon leadership over their opposition to Afghan troop removals, as opposed to what he perceived as insufficient loyalty on issues like using troops on protesters.

MK: You put the question well. These firings were almost certainly about long-simmering policy and personal differences and Trump was just holding off on major staff changes until after the election. The talk that this was all preparation for a coup was just the latest (and I hope final) example of Trump Derangement Syndrome.

EA: Oh God. That’s a term best confined to the dustbin of history.

But the bigger point is that Trump’s term in office has been characterized by appointees who have done their best to undermine his policy choices. You can argue that Trump is so erratic that these officials were doing us all a service, but that’s a very risky argument. Who gets to decide what’s bad? We’re a democracy. Why should someone like Syria envoy and former U.S. ambassador to Turkey Jim Jeffrey get to decide that troops belong in Syria rather than the elected president?

MK: So we are in agreement then that if Trump orders a strike on Iran in his waning days of office, then the Pentagon should act on it?

EA: Of course. If it isn’t an illegal order—something blatantly unconstitutional—the Pentagon needs to do it. Even the war powers act allows the president to commit U.S. troops to conflict for up to 60 days without congressional approval.

Not all bad ideas are illegal, unfortunately. And I think the possibilities being floated in various publications—that Trump will strike Iranian nuclear sites, or that he’ll give the Israelis the green light to do it for him—are truly terrible ideas.

MK: I used to work on the Iran desk in the Pentagon and have written extensively on this issue in the past. A limited strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be better than living with the dangers of a nuclear Iran for years to come. And, if you believe Obama’s and Trump’s public statements, they agree with me.

But we are not there yet. According to public estimates, Iran’s breakout time to a bomb is 3.5 months. So, it is not too early to have this discussion, but we don’t need to pull the trigger tomorrow.

EA: Look, the fundamental question is one of permanence. A strike might well undermine Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons, but only temporarily.

Two other points: So far as we know, Iran hasn’t actually crossed the rubicon from enrichment to weapons development since the Trump administration withdrew from the nuclear deal. And the only reason we’re having this discussion is that Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement brought us to a point where Iran now has 12 times the highly enriched uranium it did under the deal!

MK: Do you think the enrichment program is a high-school science project? There is only one logical purpose for a country like Iran: to make fuel for nuclear weapons. The IAEA caught Iran designing nuclear warheads. And Iran has the most sophisticated missile program in the region. The last remaining piece is to acquire one bomb’s worth of weapons-grade fissile material. Iran is inching closer and the best estimates are that that can be achieved 3.5 months after Iran’s Supreme Leader says: “Go.”

EA: The IAEA caught them designing warheads in the 1990s. As someone who was a teenager in the 1990s, I’d prefer we didn’t hold people to account for things—like fashion crimes—that they did three decades ago.

Sarcasm aside, the enrichment program is political in nature. It serves the regime’s domestic political needs by thumbing their nose at the West, and it serves their international needs in providing them a bargaining chip to encourage future U.S. administrations to come back to the nuclear deal.

Look, even if a strike undermines their nuclear capabilities, what’s to stop them building it again, this time further underground?

MK: If Iran is on the verge of developing weapons and the U.S. military doesn’t strike, then it will have nuclear weapons. Washington doesn’t want to make the same mistake as in North Korea and simply watch as a rogue state joins the nuclear club. Military strikes at least keep the non-nuclear path open.

They might rebuild, but they might prefer not to waste additional years and billions of dollars only to get bombed again.

And I dare them to rebuild further underground. The Fordow uranium enrichment facility near Qom is already built into the side of the mountain under 300 feet of rock and it is still vulnerable to U.S. bunker-busting bombs.

EA: I have a healthy regard for human ingenuity. If they can’t bury it, they’ll hide it. The list of countries that have successfully hidden some form of nuclear development from the international community is lengthy, even if only some of them succeeded in getting the bomb: North Korea, South Korea, South Africa, Israel, Brazil, Argentina, India, Pakistan, Libya, Syria, and more.

And the political incentives to rebuild Iran’s nuclear program are huge; otherwise, the regime looks weak domestically. It seems to me military strikes just put the U.S. government in a situation where it has to find increasingly complex ways to strike the program every few years. It would surely be better to defuse the issue through diplomacy, inspections, and safeguards. Conveniently, those are all things that open the country up economically, support reformist voices, and undermine the power of groups like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

MK: Of course, diplomacy would be the best possible solution, but it hasn’t been easy. The Trump administration offered to negotiate, and it was Iran that refused. And even the nuclear deal did not solve this problem permanently; it only kicked it down the road 10-15 years. It would be great if we could talk Tehran out of the bomb, but I am not optimistic.

EA: I’m hardly surprised that Iran didn’t jump at the opportunity to negotiate with an administration that pulled out of the deal and then called on them “to behave like a normal nation.”

It sounds like what Trump is trying to do here is foreclose the diplomatic option for Biden. I’ve always felt that presidents had a duty to not screw things up on purpose for their opponents and successors. Some presidents have clearly felt differently, like when Reagan negotiated for the release of Iranian hostages behind Jimmy Carter’s back. But Trump is still piling on new sanctions and considering military strikes to lock in his maximum pressure campaign against Iran. It’s far from the worst thing he’s done, but it’s still not good.

MK: Maybe we can end on a note of agreement. Trump is a lame-duck president. The responsible thing would be to keep the ship of state on a steady course until the handover on Jan. 20. So, that means no Iran strike and no Afghan troop withdrawal. It will then be up to Biden to decide.

EA: You may be right there. Of course, there’s a lot more likelihood of continuity between Biden and Trump on Afghanistan than on Iran.

But I think you might be being unrealistic again. This president has refused to accept the election results and is denying his successor access to classified intelligence and transition resources. I don’t exactly see him honoring the incoming administration’s foreign-policy preferences.

Perhaps that’s why so many foreign leaders—with the notable exception of Benjamin Netenyahu and Mohammed Bin Salman—seem so happy to see a Biden victory? It will be refreshing to get back to a president whom we can criticize on policy, but don’t need to be embarrassed about.

MK: I am not easily embarrassed by the democratically elected leader of the world’s greatest country. That is, unless the Onion is correct and we need to worry about a shirtless Uncle Joe washing his Trans Am in the White House driveway.

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig