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The Observer view on Donald Trump and the murder of Iran’s leading nuclear scientist

Dangerous military adventurism in the dying days of a US presidency is not without recent precedent. In December 1992, George HW Bush sent 25,000 US troops to Somalia, weeks before handing over to Bill Clinton. The US intervention ended badly with the 1993 battle of Mogadishu, scene of the infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident.

In 2009, Israeli officials are said to have sought US help and weapons for an airstrike on Iran before Barack Obama took office. George W Bush refused. Advice given to Bush was similar to that which Donald Trump reportedly received from officials in a briefing this month: a military strike would be ineffective, could push Iran closer to building an atomic bomb and might start a war.

According to accounts of the White House briefing, Trump was alarmed by a UN inspectors’ report of a sharp rise in Iran’s stockpile of uranium that could, if enriched, be used to build an atomic bomb. Trump asked for military options, but was dissuaded from ordering an attack. Attention is now focused on whether he gave a green light for other, covert forms of action against Iran.

The assassination on Friday by unidentified assailants of Iran’s leading nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi, appears to fall into this latter category. Iran’s leaders, mindful of previous, unexplained killings of its nuclear experts, have been quick to blame Israel for Fakhrizadeh’s death. But American and regional analysts suggest that if Israel was involved, it would only have acted after getting the nod from Trump.

This explanation makes sense for several reasons. Like last January’s assassination of the Revolutionary Guard general Qassem Suleimani, Friday’s outrage is an extraordinarily provocative act. It risks goading Iran into armed retaliation against its most prominent enemies – Israel, Saudi Arabia and US forces based in the region. The assassination, in this sense, is tantamount to a declaration of war.

No Israeli leader, and not even one as irresponsible as Benjamin Netanyahu, would make such a dangerous move without first clearing it with Washington. And the reasons for believing Trump would go along are many. The US and Israel have allegedly collaborated in a string of sabotage attacks inside Iran in recent years. It was Trump who personally ordered the killing of Suleimani, an illegal act about which he later boasted.

Given the abject failure of his Iran policy over the past four years, Trump doubtless feels frustrated, if not vengeful. His “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign, increased further this month, has failed to bring the Tehran regime to its knees as he predicted. What it has done, and still does, is cause needless suffering to Iran’s people and create friction with US allies. Trump’s reckless decision to tear up the UN-approved 2015 nuclear deal negotiated with Iran by Barack Obama has had the opposite effect to that intended. After unilaterally sticking with the pact for a year, Iran gradually began to break its terms. That is why its low-enriched uranium stockpile is growing. Trump shot himself in the foot – and raised regional tensions.

Trump evidently believes Netanyahu when he claims Iran is building a bomb, despite a lack of clear evidence. He has swallowed the simplistic rightwing narrative of Iran as evil, existential threat. He casts himself as Israel’s saviour. And yet, as always with Trump, personal grievance is also a factor. He was determined from the outset to destroy Obama’s work on Iran because, for him, everything Obama achieved is anathema.

Joe Biden’s talk of reviving the Obama-era nuclear deal infuriates Trump, who appears to be trying to thwart the president-elect. If Iran retaliates for the assassination, it could plunge the Middle East into violent chaos and wreck Biden’s hopes of a new start. By his ignorant, selfish blundering, Trump helped create this crisis. He may welcome it. Few others will.

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