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Trump Considers Potential Actions He Might Take Against Iran Before His Term Ends

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

All right. Changing gears to national security and this question - what exactly is President Trump trying to accomplish in the Middle East? We learned he recently met with top national security advisers and discussed possible military action in Iran. Yet this afternoon his acting defense secretary announced troop cutbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, part of the president's effort to end U.S. wars in the region. To help make sense of all this, we have called on NPR's Greg Myre.

Hey, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Start with what the president might be eyeing on Iran. What have you been able to confirm about this meeting? This was last week.

MYRE: Right. Last Thursday evening Trump got together with his national security team at the White House. Now, this was just a day after the International Atomic Energy Agency said that Iran continues to stockpile uranium enriched to low levels. But still, it's a stockpile many time larger than permitted under the 2015 nuclear deal - so not weapons-grade uranium. And Iran would still have to take several additional steps before it could make a nuclear weapon. But the meeting did take on added urgency because of this report, and it included people like Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, who'd just been on the job a couple days.

KELLY: Yeah. Did they give the president a range of options? I mean, do we know how serious this conversation got?

MYRE: Well, the president would certainly have options like an airstrike or a cyberattack on Iran's nuclear facilities. And a military official told my NPR colleague Tom Bowman that the national security advisers presented a range of options, but they opposed any kind of military strike. Now, it's not entirely clear where Trump came down on this, but at this point, there's no indication of a military buildup or anything that would suggest military action. And a number of factors do tend to weigh against the military move. Time is running short. The window is closing. And Iran's program is very well-protected. It's scattered around the country. Any kind of one-off attack would probably just cause some limited damage.

KELLY: Meanwhile, is there any contradiction here - the president reportedly contemplating military action against Iran even as he is trying to reduce the U.S. military footprint in the wider region, these troop drawdowns just announced for Iraq and Afghanistan?

MYRE: Well, this is a president who often sends conflicting signals, but he has consistently called for removing troops for what he calls the endless wars. So troop drawdowns are in keeping with Trump's rhetoric. Major military action against Iran has always seemed less likely. I spoke about this with Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: If your goal is to end wars in the Middle East and reduce U.S. presence in the Middle East but also ask for options about military attacks against Iran, those are two contradictory goals.

KELLY: I mean, worth noting these are obviously two very, very different matters - Iran and trying to prevent it from getting a nuclear weapon and the long-standing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I will note President Trump has made no secret of pursuing a confrontational approach towards Iran. How surprising would it be if he did take military action?

MYRE: Well, he's been very confrontational, but he's never been committed to toppling the Iranian regime. The former national security adviser John Bolton was a leading proponent of regime change, but Trump never agreed to this. So Bolton spoke to NPR about this last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JOHN BOLTON: I think the only way to guarantee that Iran does not become a nuclear weapon state is to remove the regime. And the president was never willing to take that as his policy.

KELLY: Briefly, Greg, where does this all leave President-elect Biden when it comes to Iran?

MYRE: That Iran could be a challenge on Day 1.

KELLY: Yeah.

MYRE: There's talk of going back to the nuclear deal, but that's far from clear.

KELLY: NPR's national security correspondent Greg Myre, thank you.

MYRE: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALPHA'S "MY THINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.