US President Donald Trump took a hard line against Iran. Image: Facebook

US President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to fire his Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and replace him with hawkish yes-man Christopher Miller, who headed the National Counterterrorism Office and before that the Pentagon’s “special operations” program, has sparked fear in the US media as well as in Iran that Trump might be plotting to trigger a war with Iran before his scheduled departure from the White House on January 20.

Various US media outlets including the New York Times published headlines like “Trump fires Esper, the Defense Secretary Who Opposed the Use of Troops in the Streets.”

That’s true, but given the distinct possibility that Trump’s real motive was oriented more against foreign adversaries like Iran, such accent on Esper’s difference with the president on domestic matters may turn out to be journalistic myopia. Perhaps a more fitting headline would be: “Trump fires Esper, who opposed war with Iran.”

“The United States is not seeking a war with Iran…We are seeking a diplomatic solution,” Esper told the media in early January 2020. One step further, he even openly contradicted Trump’s claim that US-assassinated Iranian General Ghasem Soleimani was plotting attacks on four US embassies around the world. 

Esper also stood up to Trump, who threatened to wipe out Iran’s cultural centers, by flatly stating that the Pentagon had no such bombing plans.  

With Esper gone and replaced with a new acting defense secretary in the waning months of Trump’s presidency, the stage could be set for a US-Iran war in light of the related news from the US State Department that it plans a “flood” of new Iran sanctions in the coming days. 

US President Donald Trump shakes hands with then-US Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark Esper in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, DC on Monday, October 7, 2019. Credit: Ron Sachs / Pool via CNP

The outgoing Trump administration could thus be in the process of implementing a one-two punch, whereby the onslaught of new sanctions and other related pressures on Iran would be followed by “triggering events” such as anti-US acts of terror attributed to Iran and its proxies in Iraq and elsewhere, culminating in an all-out war.

In this vein, some foresee a delayed “October surprise” in light of the disputed US presidential elections, with the incumbent president desperately exploring legal avenues to overturn Biden’s victory and secure a backdoor second term in office. 

The problem, however, is that there is scant evidence of voter fraud and most US pundits agree there is little or no chance of US courts intervening to change the election result in Trump’s favor absent any significant evidence of a “stolen election”, as falsely claimed by Trump. 

But Trump’s hand might be strengthened if the US suddenly finds itself in a state of war in the coming weeks, creating an emergency situation that Trump would leverage to his advantage as a “wartime president” and then somehow use that stature to avoid being evicted from the White House.

Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, has warned among others that Trump’s ominous decision to suddenly sack Esper and replace him – not with Esper’s deputy, as is the norm – but rather with a loyal hawk from another department has the potential to rupture a “transition of power” to Biden now widely being taken for granted by the Democrats. 

Then-National Counterterrorism Center Director Christopher Miller testifies before a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on September 17, 2020, in Washington, DC. Photo: AFP/Pool/Chip Somodevilla

In this war scenario, Israel, which dreads the departure of Trump and the prospect of an Obama-like detente with Iran under a new Biden administration, can play its part by staging a “false flag” operation targeting US forces in Iran’s vicinity, yielding the desired result in the form of a massive US military retaliation including a possible high-stakes attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. 

Some Israeli officials have already gone on record in media reports warning that Biden’s victory would mean a war with Iran. Saudi Arabia’s rulers, who are likewise petrified by the possibility of a new, conciliatory US approach towards Iran under Biden could also potentially lend assistance to such a shadow plot.  

For Iran’s part, President Hassan Rouhani has reacted to Biden’s victory by sending a conciliatory message that emphasizes Iran’s determination to have a constructive rapport with the international community, while simultaneously calling on the US to honor its international obligations by returning to the Iran nuclear agreement, which Trump confrontationally abandoned. 

Faced with the imminent prospect of a reversal of his landmark confrontational policies towards Iran, Trump could seek to frustrate Biden’s sanguine prediction that “the grim era of demonization” of Iran will end come January 20 with his inauguration as president.

Anti-war activist protests in front of the White House in Washington, DC, on January 4, 2020. Photo: AFP/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds

There are other ominous signs of a dark plot. Mitch McConnell, the ranking Republican Senator, has decided to back Trump’s accusation of systematic election fraud, thus giving Trump a major boost in his stubborn battle to deny the will of a majority of American voters. 

McConnell and other Trump loyalists inside and outside of the US government would, of course, rush to defend him in any potential confrontation with Iran, which will almost certainly not come as a result of any Iranian provocation amid the transition from Trump to Biden.

No matter the official justification for a war with Iran, there would be a huge public outcry and widespread suspicions of foul play that aimed ultimately at keeping Trump in power. Yet it is far from clear that Trump and his lackeys are beyond orchestrating such a nightmarish scenario for their own political ends.