The United States, Israel, and Iran are all undergoing political transitions of power over the next six-plus months. These transitions can lead to crises when national policies towards one another are closely linked. The Trump administration will leave office on January 20. It is likely that Israel will hold yet another set of elections early in 2021. Iran has elections scheduled for June 2021. Iran remains under crippling U.S.-led sanctions, and Tehran’s nuclear program has been attacked, likely by Israel. Leaders of each country have incentives to undertake risky actions in the short run to shore up domestic political constituencies and/or take advantage of fleeting alignments to achieve important domestic or international goals.
For the United States, President Trump may be tempted to strike Iran before the end of his term. Press reports indicate he recently discussed a strike against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure but was talked about of it. He may revisit this issue in the coming weeks for two reasons. The first is that President Trump and some of his advisors believe that a Biden administration will be weak on Iran, leaving Tehran more capable of building a hidden nuclear weapons program. They may view the next few weeks as a closing window of opportunity to set back Tehran’s ambitions. They may also believe that a strike now may stymie attempts to return to any negotiated agreement with Tehran. The second is that President Trump may have future political ambitions, and he may want to show his toughness to his political base. While advisors may have talked President Trump out of a strike recently, he still has the authority to order even a reluctant military to act. Iranian public claims of ongoing advances in its nuclear program, particularly enriching more uranium to progressively higher levels, may provide a rationale for an attack.
For Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu, time may also be running out with regard to Iran. President Trump has been the Prime Minister’s strongest ally on Iran. They both believe that the JCPOA nuclear agreement was fundamentally flawed, and they also both believe that only maximum pressure will cause Tehran to give up dangerous activities – developing nuclear weapons in the future, ongoing missile development, and supporting insurgents and non-state groups in the Middle East who threaten both Israel and Sunni-led Arab states. A Biden administration may return to some nuclear agreement, easing economic and political pressure on Tehran. Israel has already been accused of recently causing explosions at two Iranian nuclear facilities and killing one of Iran’s top nuclear scientists. Israel may believe that time is running out for such operations either because of supporting intelligence from the United States and/or at least explicit approval. This may lead them to step up attacks if there are further targets of opportunity. Netanyahu now faces a rival from his own Likud party, Gideon Saar, who has broken away to form his own party. Time therefore may be running out for Mr. Netanyahu to act against Iran.
Finally, Tehran may believe that better days are coming with a Biden administration. However, the Iranian government must do what it needs to survive under crippling sanctions, and also consider retaliation if either Israeli attacks continue and/or Washington decides to conduct a more overt military strike. While the Iranian leadership appears to have chosen to delay or forego retaliation for the killing of Qasem Soleimani, it may not be able to hold back if attacks on its own soil continue to escalate. While both Trump and Netanyahu may have more pressing considerations than their policies towards Iran, the next six weeks could bring broader violence between Washington/Tel Aviv and Tehran.