The assassination of Mohsen Fakhrezadeh, Iran’s top nuclear scientist, has plunged the region once more into turmoil as the prospect of open conflict comes to the fore. While no party has claimed responsibility, there appears to be an implied consensus that Israel carried out the attack in order to either goad Iran into an open conflict or warn the incoming Biden administration that it will not allow a deal to be made with Iran without its approval, and is prepared to act accordingly.
Mohsen Fakhrezadeh was one of Iran’s top nuclear scientist and heavily involved in its nuclear program, which Iran has always insisted is geared towards peaceful aims.
However, the significance of the event is not rooted in the role of the person assassinated, but that it was carried out in broad daylight, and that the stakes in the wider geopolitical wrestling taking place in the region have been raised.
The ability to assassinate a high-ranking Iranian official near the country’s capital suggests that Iran’s intelligence agencies have been compromised. There have been suggestions that the deteriorating economic situation – exacerbated by Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy – has created an environment conducive for Iran’s antagonists to find willing defectors. In other words, the grip of the Iranian regime on its state institutions is weakening.
The carrying out of such an assassination suggests that Washington’s ability to impose itself on its allies has been diminished.
More worrisome is that the carrying out of such an assassination suggests that Washington’s ability to impose itself on its allies has been diminished. The assassination hampers prospective negotiations between Biden and Tehran and raises serious questions over a Biden presidency’s ability to impress upon its allies that any agreement on Iran’s nuclear program must be respected and upheld. Simply put, where Obama’s deal was blown out of the water by Trump, Iran now has reason to fear that even a Biden deal could be equally fragile if US allies (particularly Israel) reject it.
Most importantly, the assassination reflects a deep concern amongst the US’ closest allies that the deal Biden is intent on pursuing with Iran is going to come at their expense. It reveals a growing sense amongst US allies that Biden cannot be depended on to protect their interests and that serious consideration needs to be given to available options to undermine the new administration’s foreign policy.
Why is Trump Angry over Iran?
It is unlikely that such an assassination could have been carried out without at least an implicit approval from Washington, and it is noteworthy that President Trump retweeted an Israeli journalist, Yossi Melman, who celebrated Fakhrezadeh’s death as a “major psychological and professional blow for Iran.”
When Trump withdrew from the Iran deal, it was done primarily to spite Obama who had humiliated him. But it was also done to respond to the very loud opposition voices amongst US allies in the region who believed the deal had come at their expense, and the opposition voices in Congress who Obama had bypassed by ratifying the deal via a Presidential Executive Order.
Trump’s policy was always to secure another deal, but on his terms.
Trump’s policy was always to secure another deal, but on his terms. His policy of maximum pressure was designed to break Iran’s resistance and force its leaders to a table whereby Trump would be able to dictate the terms and then present an “America First” nuclear deal to the domestic electorate.
Iran has resisted for two main reasons. The first is that while Trump’s maximum pressure policy has had a significant impact on Iran’s domestic economy, it has done little to impact its regional ambitions and its influence remains intact (if not stronger) in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.
Moreover, Trump’s bully approach to the Iranian regime has had the unintended effect of angering even anti-regime elements, who loathe the idea of relying on a US president perceived as openly racist as a potential savior. Where Obama had serenaded Tehran, Trump was aggressively threatening them.
The second reason is that Tehran has long hoped that Trump would be a one-term president, and that a return of a Democratic administration would restore the nuclear deal or at least restart negotiations over a new deal. Tehran is now especially buoyed over Biden’s victory since he was Obama’s vice-president. There is a perception amongst Iranian policymakers that an eventual agreement with Biden will resemble that made with Obama, which established a power-sharing arrangement in the region that entrenched Iran’s hard-earned foreign policy gains.
As Trump finds himself in his last days in the White House, there is a sense that Tehran is on the verge of “winning” the feud with Trump. It is in this context that there are growing fears that Trump will exact his revenge by making his last days as painful as possible for Tehran, and that the assassination is a prelude to other provocations to come.
Israel and Other US Allies Oppose Negotiations with Iran
It is not just Israel that opposes the potential deal, but nearly all of the US allies in the region. It is not the actual negotiations that they object to but what they perceive to be the low threshold that the Democrats are prepared to accept in pursuit of a deal with Iran. When Obama signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – also known as the Iran nuclear deal – in 2015, US allies across the region lamented the manner in which it was negotiated.
When Obama signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), US allies across the region lamented the manner in which it was negotiated.
While Europe and the US administration hailed the deal as a milestone towards peace, the agreement appeared in reality to be Obama conceding to Iran’s unyielding influence in the region in exchange for a “victory” he could present at home to an audience that was, and remains, increasingly averse to the deployment of US troops abroad.
In the build up to the nuclear deal, Obama had reluctantly been forced to lean on pro-Iran militias as the Iraqi national army faltered in the battle against ISIS, before later agreeing to a proposal that would see these militias gradually become incorporated into the national army. Where Obama had hoped to use the Kurdish parties as leverage against Iran’s overwhelming influence in the political institutions in Baghdad, he found himself scrambling to contain their unilateral bid for independence via a referendum and decided to support the central government’s march to quash the separatist threat.
In Yemen, less than six months before the eventual signing of the nuclear deal, the Iran-backed Houthis marched on the capital Sanaa and successfully toppled the democratic transition. Rather than seek to restore it, the Obama administration was accused of entertaining a possible recognition of Houthi power by seeking a renegotiation between the Yemeni parties so as not to jeopardize the ongoing talks with Tehran.
Israel and US allies in the region argue that the dynamics that underpinned the last nuclear deal reflected an Iranian power in the ascendancy.
In other words, Israel and US allies in the region argue that the dynamics that underpinned the last nuclear deal reflected an Iranian power in the ascendancy and one that was going to facilitate, rather than contain, a rapidly expanding “Persian empire.” The fear is that Biden will involuntarily pursue a deal in the same vein.
The reality is that Iran does not have the capacity to engage in an open conflict. Its foreign policy thrives on proxy warfare. Even when Trump openly announced he had ordered the assassination of Iran’s most prized general, Qassem Soleimani, Tehran found its realistic options limited and chose instead to make a show of force by launching missiles within the vicinity of the US’ Ain al-Asad base in Iraq without inflicting any casualties that might force a war it does not want nor is ready for.
However, a closer assessment of the current regional dynamics in the region suggests that even if Iran had the capacity to respond in revenge, it does not need to. Despite Trump’s maximum pressure, Iran’s allies in Iraq continue to remain embedded in the state’s institutions while the militias aligned to Tehran are gradually becoming incorporated into the national army.
In Syria, Tehran-ally Bashar al-Assad is still standing and all diplomatic initiatives being pursued suggest he is likely to remain for a while. In Lebanon, the political dynamics have reverted to those before the outbreak of widespread protests as Saad al-Hariri has returned as Prime Minister and is now in negotiations with pro-Iran Hezbollah in order to form a government.
Hezbollah, in alliance with the President Michel Aoun, effectively continue to control the legislative institutions while preserving their military capabilities independent of the Lebanese state. In Yemen, the Houthis are increasingly entrenched in the north and expected to cement their gains in any prospective negotiations imposed by a Biden administration’s pressure on Riyadh to rein in the use of force.
The bigger pictures suggest that Iran is growing in power and influence in the region as it presents itself as an Islamic “champion” of Shiite minorities.
Thus, the bigger pictures suggest that Iran is growing in power and influence in the region as it presents itself as an Islamic “champion” of Shiite minorities. Accordingly, with the prospect of negotiations with Biden, Tehran believes that the current geopolitical dynamics provide it with sufficient leverage to secure a deal similar to that agreed upon with Obama, which recognized and preserved Iran’s foreign policy gains at the expense of its rivals.
Moreover, the attempts to goad Iran into announcing open conflict suggests a lack of appetite amongst US policymakers and US allies in the region for an actual war. It is no secret that Israel and Saudi Arabia have lobbied for the US to deploy US troops to contain Iran. However, Trump has refused to do so and chosen instead to reduce US military presence in the region as he impresses upon his allies that they should be doing more in terms of investing their own resources to solve their issues.
Trump has no interest in risking US troops in another conflict. Israel does not want to risk its troops or fight Iran alone. Saudi Arabia does not want to risk its troops either. Nor does the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, or any of the Gulf states who feel threatened by Iran’s expansion. The absence of a desire for confrontation suggests that the only scenario in which there would be an open conflict is if Iran puts Washington in an impossible position, whereby it would have no choice but to go to war (such as if it suddenly attacked and killed a number of US troops).
In light of these realities, Iran’s most likely response will be to wait out Trump as he winds down his last days in the White House and put up with the provocations on the basis that there is a great possibility of respite on the horizon. Even if there are concerns that the potential negotiations with the Biden administration will not be smooth and will remain at risk of being spoiled by US allies, Tehran believes that such a situation is better than being goaded into an open conflict it cannot win and puts its foreign policy gains since the revolution of 1979 at risk.
Finally, Tehran believes that the assassination reflects a deep concern in Tel Aviv that not only is Biden serious about negotiations, but that he would be prepared to agree to a deal that undermines his allies in favor of Iran. If Israel has such fears, then Iran will take that as a positive sign for what is to come.
Nevertheless, there will be concerns that the closer Trump gets to his exit, the more intense the pressure and provocations will become. Iran believes it is at the last hurdle, and that with a little more patience, it will secure a resounding victory over Trump.