The traditional New Year’s Eve party at the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida, took place without U.S. President Donald Trump.
Faithful to his typical D’Artagnan style, Trump—who will leave the White House to President-elect Joe Biden on Jan. 20—abandoned his friends and returned to Washington D.C. a day earlier than expected. No one knows why, but rumors have been spreading about grandiose moves and controversial gestures he intends to make before Biden takes the reigns.
The chatter among members of the international village centers on a possible war with Iran. Today, Jan. 3, is the one-year anniversary of the assassination of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani, killed in a U.S. missile strike in Baghdad. Soleimani’s face is plastered on thousands of walls throughout Tehran, and wherever lurk his admirers—from Hamas in Gaza to Hezbollah in Lebanon, from the Houthi rebels in Yemen to the various Shi’ite militia groups in Iraq—and is tied to calls for “severe revenge” against the United States and Israel.
The noise about retaliation has become particularly thunderous over the past few days. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah gave a furious speech; Hamas wanted to demonstrate its readiness for war through an unprecedented military drill and additional rocket fire on southern Israel.
Finally, on Saturday, Teheran—while announcing an increase of uranium-enrichment—reiterated its intention to seek revenge for Soleimani’s death. His killers will “not be safe on Earth,” warned Iran’s judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi, who went on to stress that not even Trump, who ordered the drone strike, is “immune from justice.”
All this followed the flight of U.S. Air Force B-52 bombers over the Persian Gulf on Dec. 29, in response to signals that Iran may be planning imminent attacks on U.S. allied targets in Iraq or elsewhere in the region.
Less than two weeks earlier, on Dec. 20, a rocket attack on the U.S. embassy compound in Baghdad by Iran-backed Shi’ite militias spurred Trump to warn Tehran that any harm to American citizens would warrant his reaction. Since Dec. 25, the Israel Defense Forces also have been on high alert.
It is plausible that Iran intends to carry out its revenge through its numerous “proxies” in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen—the countries, as Mordechai Kedar wrote recently, where Soleimani had been masterminding his plans for Iran’s regional domination. It seems likely that Iran’s revenge, which is directed at the U.S. and Israel, may hit the moderate Sunni-Arab countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia, which are more pro-American. This might explain why Trump, within the last month alone, on three separate occasions, has dispatched B52 bombers, a nuclear submarine and two warships to the region. An Israeli submarine has also headed to the Persian Gulf.
Iran could carry out its revenge just before Biden’s inauguration, in order not to attack the incoming president too directly, especially as its leaders hope to obtain a new treaty with his administration. However, it could even be difficult for Biden to find common ground with Tehran at this juncture, with news from the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran now has more than 12 times the amount of enriched uranium permitted under the 2015 nuclear deal signed by former U.S. president Barack Obama and other world powers.
In addition, Iran’s continued state sponsorship of terrorism has consolidated an anti-Iranian and pro-American Middle Eastern front, which Trump could count on if he intends to end his term with a spectacular gesture. Perhaps he wants to seal his legacy by ending the Iranian threat that has loomed over the Middle East for more than four decades.
What would Biden do? All scenarios are possible. America would be shocked by a strike on Iran, but the ayatollahs would nevertheless find themselves in the most difficult moment since coming to power in 1979. And not many in the western world would really be sorry about it, notwithstanding their proclaimed hate for any form of war.
Journalist Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies. She served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry Into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books, including “Israel Is Us” (2009). Currently, she is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.