NYT on The Secret History of the Push to Strike Iran
A recent New York Times report explores what they call a secret history of hawks seeking to advocate action against Iran. We summarize and expand a bit on that here to provide food for thought to our members since a crisis or conflict with Iran will have significant impacts on the business environment.
According to the report, revelations about Iran’s secret uranium-enrichment program first came to light in 2002. Israel then tried to push the US government to consider military action against Iran to achieve regime change or at the very least prevent the country from getting a nuclear bomb. The Bush administration was focused on Iraq at the time and chose negotiations with Iran over starting yet another war. After the 2005 election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran, the Israeli government became even more concerned about Tehran’s nuclear and military ambitions. Under Ahmadinejad, a holocaust denier who openly spoke of wiping Israeli off the map, Iran started investing more in its nuclear program, while also ramping up its military support for regional proxy groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. Despite this, the Bush administration remained against military action, although Vice President Dick Cheney openly advocated for it. While the United States and Israel began sharing more intelligence with each other during this period, which resulted in joint operations like the Stuxnet malware campaign targeting Iran’s nuclear program, Israel ultimately failed to sway Bush.
In 2009, when Barack Obama started his first term as US President and Benjamin Netanyahu started his second term as Prime Minister of Israel, relations between the two countries began to deteriorate. When Israel realized that Obama would be even less likely to approve a military campaign against Iran than Bush had been, Netanyahu and other hawkish members of his cabinet began considering a unilateral strike. Washington soon became aware of this, and US officials regularly met with Israeli counterparts in an attempt to convince them that Iran wasn’t anywhere close to getting a bomb, and to urge them not to pursue military action. In addition, the Pentagon used its spy satellites to closely monitor Israeli military activity for signs of an impending strike on Iran. The Obama administration decided that if Israel would launch an attack, the Pentagon would not join the campaign, but wouldn’t hinder it either.
In the meantime, Obama began considering a wholly different approach toward containing Iran’s nuclear program and in late 2010 his administration secretly reached out to the Iranian regime to discuss a diplomatic solution. Washington did not inform Israel or other allies about the talks. Israeli intelligence found out about the US-Iranian negotiations in 2012. Netanyahu responded by ordering preparations for an attack on Iran. According to some, this was mostly an attempt to put pressure on Obama in the months before the 2012 elections, and US officials warned Israel that a unilateral strike on Iran could seriously damage US-Israeli relations. Netanyahu claims that he wasn’t bluffing however, and that he would have ordered the strike if he had gotten majority support from his cabinet, but he eventually lost the vote and the attack was called off in October of that year.
As US-Iran negotiations about a potential nuclear deal progressed over the next year, Obama regularly called with Netanyahu to try and convince him that a deal would delay Iran’s enrichment program by at least a decade and prevent it from building a bomb, while a military strike would cause a delay of no more than two years. Netanyahu did not agree, and in 2015, when the nuclear deal was within reach, the Israeli President even accepted an invitation by Republican lawmakers in the US Congress to hold a speech against the deal. Nevertheless, the agreement was finalized in July of that year when Iran, the United States, China, France, Germany, Russia the UK and the EU officially approved it.
While Donald Trump was elected US president in 2016 on a platform that included fierce opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, many of Trump’s cabinet members initially tried to convince him that renegotiating a new deal with Iran would be better than abandoning it altogether. Not everyone agreed with this strategy though, including Stephen K. Bannon, then White House Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor to the President. Bannon contacted former national security officer John Bolton, who had been advocating for regime change in Iran for years, and asked him to develop a new strategy for Iran. While Bannon left the White House in August of 2017, Trump hired Bolton as his national security adviser in the spring of 2018. Soon after, Trump officially pulled the US out of the Iran deal and reimposed sanctions on the country.
From then on, tensions between the US and Iran began to rise and in June of 2019 the US came very close to launching a strike on Iran. Trump called off the campaign at the last minute, but the situation has hardly improved since then. In recent months, Iran has seized at least three foreign vessels in the Persian Gulf and has taken various steps in violation of the 2015 nuclear deal. In turn, the US has further increased sanctions on the country. In this context, Israel, for now still under the leadership of Netanyahu, has once again started to consider launching a unilateral strike on Iran. As an ominous sign of what is to come, tensions in the Middle East surged last week with Israel carrying out attacks on Iranian allied groups in Lebanon, Syria, the Palestinian-administered Gaza Strip and Iraq. While Trump has so far rejected US military action against Iran, it is not unlikely that this will change in the near future. In any case, Trump’s enthusiastic support for Netanyahu and Israel in general makes it probable that he will let Israel pursue a military option if Netanyahu chooses to do so.
For more see OODA special reporting on Iran and other geopolitical actors at the OODA Network Resources page.