US President Donald Trump had considered attacking Iran to stop its growing nuclear programme but was advised against any such move during his last weeks in office, the New York Times has reported.
During a meeting with the US president on Thursday, his top advisers warned such a move could escalate into a bigger conflict, the Times reported on Monday.
The meeting took place shortly after inspectors reported a significant increase in Iran’s stockpile of nuclear material, the report said, citing four current and former US officials.
“Mr Trump asked his top national security aides what options were available and how to respond,” the newspaper reported, citing officials.
The report said the attack would have likely targeted Natanz, the centrepiece of Iran’s enrichment programme, which Tehran says is only for peaceful purposes.
Last week, the United Nation’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said Iran had stockpiled low-enriched uranium 12 times more than the limit set by a nuclear accord.
As of November 2, the nuclear watchdog said Iran had a stockpile of 2,442.9 kilogrammes (5,385.7 pounds) of low-enriched uranium, up from 2,105.4kg (4,641.6 pounds) reported on August 25.
The nuclear deal Iran signed in 2015 with world powers allowed it only to keep a stockpile of 202.8kg (447 pounds).
‘Maximum pressure campaign’
The landmark nuclear agreement, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was signed to curb Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief.
The goal was to prevent the country from building a nuclear weapon, something Iran has insisted it does not intend to do.
However, the Iranian government began scaling back a number of its JCPOA commitments following Trump’s decision to unilaterally withdraw the US from the accord in 2018, and the subsequent failure by its European signatories – France, the UK and Germany – to secure Iran the economic benefits it was promised under the deal.
The NYT report said Trump’s advisers, including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, illustrated the risks involved in a military escalation with Iran.
Officials familiar with the matter later said Trump might “still be looking at ways to strike Iranian assets and allies, including militias in Iraq”.
The US defence 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 newspaper said.
Tensions between Washington and Tehran have intensified after the US enforced its so-called “maximum pressure campaign” against Iran following its JCPOA exit.
The campaign included the reimposition of punishing economic sanctions that have squeezed the Iranian economy and led, among other things, to soaring inflation and shortages of medicine.
A change in the two countries’ nuclear diplomacy could be in sight as US President-elect Joe Biden has promised he would offer Iran “a credible path back to diplomacy”, marking a stark change in Trump’s aggressive rhetoric against Iran.
But an escalation with Iran could make it difficult for Biden to salvage the nuclear accord, which he has pledged to rejoin “as a starting point for follow-on negotiations” if Tehran returns to compliance with it.