Tensions have been high in the Middle East since The New York Times reported that President Trump reviewed options to strike an Iranian nuclear facility during an Oval Office meeting earlier this month.
Officials left the meeting assuming a military strike was off the table for now, but the president left other options open. Covert options like cyberattacks are certainly on the table for the US. Another possibility is that US allies in the region take it upon themselves to stir up a military confrontation with Iran.
Over the past week, Israel has stepped up its attacks inside Syria against what it calls Iranian-linked targets. Last week, Israel attacked a wide range of targets inside Syria and released a video of some of the strikes, a departure from the usual ambiguity surrounding Israeli airstrikes in Syria.
Last week’s strikes came after Israeli officials said explosives were found on the Israeli side of the border with Syria and claimed “Iranian-led” forces had planted them. Since then, several other Israeli attacks on Syria have been reported. The latest took place on Thursday morning. A UK-based monitor said 19 members of a Shia militia were killed.
For their part, Iran has been urging caution and is hoping to avoid a conflict. Iraqi officials told The Associated Press that Iran delivered a message to its allies in the region last week to be on high alert and avoid provoking tensions with the US. Sources told Middle East Eye that a top Iranian military officer, Brigadier General Ismail Qaani, delivered the message himself.
“Qaani made it clear that Trump wants to drag the region into an open war before leaving, to take revenge on his opponents over losing the election, and it is not in our interest to give him any justification to start such a war,” a top commander of a Shia militia in Iraq told Middle East Eye.
Israel seems eager to let the world know that they are preparing for a war with Iran. On Wednesday, Israeli officials told Axios that the Israeli military was preparing for a possible US strike on Iran, anticipating a “very sensitive period” before Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20th.
Another Israeli leak to the media that could have been a message to Iran was about a secret meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that took place on Sunday. Although Saudi Arabia denied it, Israeli officials publicly confirmed the meeting, and Saudi sources confirmed it with The Wall Street Journal.
According to reports, Netanyahu and MBS discussed Iran and a possible normalization agreement. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has made clear in recent comments that one of the primary purposes of the normalization deals between Arab countries and Israel is to isolate Iran.
Pompeo wrapped up a tour of Israel and some Gulf states on Sunday. During the trip, he was asked about the Times report and a possible military strike on Iran. Pompeo, and a State Department official traveling with him, said all options are on the table.
The Trump administration is planning to ramp up the pressure as much as possible on Iran in its final days. Elliot Abrams, the US envoy to Iran, said the administration plans to sanction Iran every week until January 20th. The idea is to sabotage Joe Biden’s plans to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal.