INTERNATIONAL

Trump sought options for attacking Iran nuclear site

Points of view:U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned President Trump against a strike on Iran and described the potential risks of military escalation.  

President Donald Trump asked senior advisers in an Oval Office meeting on Thursday whether he had options to take action against Iran’s main nuclear site in the coming weeks. The meeting occurred a day after international inspectors reported a significant increase in the country’s stockpile of nuclear material, four current and former U.S. officials said on Monday.

A range of senior advisers dissuaded the President from moving ahead with a military strike. The advisers — including Vice-President Mike Pence; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; Christopher C. Miller, the acting Defense Secretary; and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — warned that a strike against Iran’s facilities could easily escalate into a broader conflict in the last weeks of Mr. Trump’s presidency.

Natanz on the radar

Any strike — whether by missile or cyber — would almost certainly be focused on Natanz, where the International Atomic Energy Agency reported on Wednesday that Iran’s uranium stockpile was now 12 times larger than permitted under the nuclear accord that Mr. Trump abandoned in 2018. The agency also noted that Iran had not allowed it access to another suspected site where there was evidence of past nuclear activity.

Mr. Trump asked his top national security aides what options were available and how to respond, officials said.

After Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Milley described the potential risks of military escalation, officials left the meeting believing a missile attack inside Iran was off the table, according to administration officials with knowledge of the meeting.

Mr. Trump might still be looking at ways to strike Iranian assets and allies, including militias in Iraq, officials said. A smaller group of national security aides had met late Wednesday to discuss Iran, the day before the meeting with the President.

White House officials did not respond to requests for comment.

The episode underscored how Mr.Trump still faces an array of global threats in his final weeks in office. A strike on Iran may not play well to his base, which is largely opposed to a deeper American conflict in West Asia, but it could poison relations with Tehran so that it would be much harder for President-elect Joe Biden to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear accord, as he has promised to do.

Since Mr. Trump dismissed Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and other top Pentagon aides last week, Defense Department and other national security officials have privately expressed worries that the President might initiate operations, whether overt or secret, against Iran or other adversaries at the end of his term.

The events of the past few days are not the first time that Iran policy has emerged in the final days of a departing administration. During the last days of the Bush administration in 2008, Israeli officials, concerned that the incoming Obama administration would seek to block it from striking Iran’s nuclear facilities, sought bunker-busting bombs, bombers and intelligence assistance from the U.S. for an Israeli-led strike.

Cyber options

Vice-President Dick Cheney later wrote in his memoir that he supported the idea. President George W. Bush did not, but the result was a far closer collaboration with Israel on a cyberstrike against the Natanz facility, which took out about 1,000 of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges.

Ever since, the Pentagon has revised its strike plans multiple times. It now has traditional military as well as cyber options, and some that combine the two. Some involve direct action by Israel.

The report from the IAEA concluded that Iran now had a stockpile of more than 2,442 kg, or more than 5,385 pounds, of low-enriched uranium. That is enough to produce about two nuclear weapons, according to an analysis of the report by the Institute for Science and International Security.

But it would require several months of additional processing to enrich the uranium to bomb-grade material, meaning that Iran would not be close to a bomb until late spring at the earliest — well after Mr. Trump would have left office.Ny times