U.S. President Donald Trump had asked his advisers last week whether it would be possible to strike Iran's main nuclear site in the final weeks of his presidency, the New York Times reported Tuesday. Senior advisers convinced him not to follow through, warning of an escalation.
According to the New York Times report, U.S. officials said that inspectors from a UN nuclear watchdog had reported Wednesday that Iran's stockpile of nuclear material increased significantly, and that Iran had barred their access to another site where there is evidence of prior nuclear activity. At the Natanz nuclear facility, the IAEA said, the uranium stockpile is 12 times larger than permitted by the Iran nuclear deal, from which Trump withdrew in 2018.
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Officials said that Trump asked his advisers how to respond, and what options were available. His aides, including Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and the acting defense secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told him that a military escalation with Iran could follow if he struck the facilities, leading to a larger conflict.
According to the report, administration officials with knowledge of the meeting said that once Trump had been dissuaded, the advisers believed that he would not order a missile strike within Iranian territory.
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Officials said that the possibility remains of striking Iranian assets and allies within outside of Iran, such as Iranian-aligned militias operating in Iraq. A day before the White House meeting, the report says, a small group of national security advisers met to discuss the issue.
On Friday, the New York Times reported that Al-Qaida's second-in-command, Abu Mohammed al-Masri, was assassinated in Iran in August by Israeli agents at the behest of the United States. Israeli security officials say that the revelation is meant to convey a message to President-elect Joe Biden, who intends to renew negotiations with Iran.
In July, a fire broke out at the Natanz facility, causing significant damage. A Middle Eastern intelligence official quoted by the New York Times attributed the incident to a bomb planted by Israel, and Iranian officials told Reuters that they believed it was caused by a cyber attack. Experts said the explosion had put the plant out of commission, and set back the Iranian nuclear program by months, if not years.
In January, a U.S. drone strike killed Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in Iraq. In retaliation, the Iranian military struck U.S. bases in Iraq, wounding many U.S. soldiers but killing none.