No Good Options for Iran Following Yet Another High-Profile Assassination

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region


The brazen assassination of Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh threatens to destabilize the region anew. Coming less than a year after the assassination of the revered commander of the Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, and only weeks since the killing in Iran of Abu Muhammad al-Masri, a senior al-Qaeda official, the targeted killing of the alleged mastermind of Iran’s nuclear program raises serious questions about Iran’s ability to protect its high-value targets. Few countries in the world have both the means and the motive to execute such risky operations, and at this time all evidence points to the involvement of Israel. What is unknown, however, is how Iran will react, if it can, as some question, react at all. Early signs indicate that the Iranian leaders may bide their time until the intentions of the incoming Biden administration are made clear.

News of the killing of Mr. Fakhrizadeh was greeted by a collective shrug by most governments in the region, with the UAE among the few that condemned outright the assassination. According to a Khaleej Times report, “The UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation has stressed that the state of instability that the region is currently going through, and the security challenges it faces, drive everyone to work towards averting acts that could lead to escalation and eventually threaten the stability of the entire region. In a statement, the ministry said that emanating from its deep conviction on the need to pursue all means for stability in the region, it condemns the heinous assassination of Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, which could further fuel conflict in the region. ‘Given the current situation in the region, the UAE calls upon all parties to exercise maximum degrees of self-restraint to avoid dragging the region into new levels of instability and threat to peace’, the Ministry added.”

The call for restraint was echoed also by one of the UAE’s main dailies, The National, which in its editorial went further to express concern about the likely effect the killing would have on the internal power balance in Tehran: “Fakhrizadeh’s killing and the emotive internal response to it could empower those in Tehran advocating aggressive reactions. Perhaps this is what the assassins were relying on. Iran’s hardline faction already has some momentum, as the country struggles under sanctions, Covid-19 and a plunging economy. Paranoia within the government could make Iran move its activities further underground, complicating future negotiations for a new nuclear deal to curb its weapons programme. History shows us that an Iran under pressure can be particularly volatile. For Tehran’s hardliners, looking like an ineffective victim is unconscionable. In contrast, the real danger to Iran, its people and the wider Middle East, would be the reckless actions advocated by the fringe. Iran should view its current vulnerability as proof that it cannot justify its pariah status any longer.”

No one denies, though, that the assassination is seen as a setback for Iran’s image in the region. Writing for Asharq Alawsat, Ghassan Charbel points out that in light of the recent normalization deals between Israel and some Arab countries, Iran finds itself with few options to respond to such setbacks: “Any man can be replaced no matter how brilliant he was. Any facility, no matter how sensitive, can be rebuilt. What’s most difficult is to heal a distorted image. The image of the regime, its master, or the machine holding its strings. Iran is heading towards the end of the year with two big wounds…. The impact of Fakhrizadeh’s assassination on Iran takes a bigger dimension after the announcement of the killing of Abu Muhammad al-Masri, a senior al-Qaeda official in Tehran, which confirms the previous accusations against the Iranian apparatus…. In addition to all of the foregoing, the last operation came after a major transformation in the region represented by the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain on the basis of a shared concern over Iranian policies. This practically means that Iran’s attempt to encircle major countries in the region was hit by major blows.”

Still, many expect Iran to retaliate. The question is, how? In an op-ed for Arab News, Majid Rafizadeh notes that, while the Iranian regime may feel particularly vulnerable following the targeting of several high-profile individuals associated with and protected by the regime, it can only respond indirectly, so as to avoid coming into a direct conflict with the US: “The killings of Soleimani and Fakhrizadeh exposed the weakness of Iran’s security and intelligence apparatuses and the regime’s inability to prevent the leaking of confidential information. The regime, which has always taken pride in and boasted about its military power, was also humiliated in front of its network of militia and terror groups across the region…. But will Iran actually retaliate? And, if so, how and when? Tehran undoubtedly will retaliate, but it is important to look at its current overarching strategy when it comes to hitting the US and its allies. The regime’s modus operandi is anchored in inflicting damage in an indirect manner in order to avoid instigating an all-out war. This is due to the fact that a full-scale war with Israel or the US would most likely lead to the collapse of the Iranian regime. Therefore, Tehran cannot afford a direct conflict.”

The truth is that there don’t seem to be any good options for Iran. In fact, despite their bellicose rhetoric, the Iranians themselves have to be careful to signal that their response may be of a non-military nature, as evinced by a recent Tehran Times report: “Rouhani described the terror attack as a trap set by Israel for Iran…. With Iranian lawmakers putting forward a bill to lift sanctions against the country, Iran seems to be moving in the direction of giving a strategic response to Israel by using non-military tools…. If passed, the bill would compel the government to considerably increase nuclear activities such as increasing uranium enrichment level to 20% and installing more advanced centrifuges. The bill also requires the government to suspend the voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) three months after the ratification of it if the parties to the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers failed to uphold their obligations under the JCPOA.”

Yedioth Ahronoth’s Alex Fishman explains that Iran’s predicament and its inability to retaliate violently against Israel and its allies in the region is directly related to the anticipated change of administration in the White House, as well as to the current difficulties some of Iran’s proxies are going through: “Joe Biden will be sworn in as president of the United States in less than two months and the overriding premise is that Iran has no real interest in taking action to throw the Middle East into turmoil on the eve of his inauguration…. Syrian President Bashar Assad will try his hardest to prevent Iran from taking retaliatory action against Israel from within his borders. For two years, Assad has been signaling to the Iranians that the price his regime is paying for cooperating with Iran might be too dear. And since Israel and Hezbollah are caught in what seems like an eternal stalemate in Lebanon, it is a safe bet that any retaliation for the death of Fakhrizadeh will be carried out on foreign soil…. Meanwhile, the Iranians are now most likely to make use of any sleeper cells within the West Bank or even inside Israel’s own borders.”

The lack of any good military options for Iran may also explain why, as Al Ahram’s Ahmed Mostafa puts it, “There is little anxiety in the Arab Gulf countries’ with regards to the possibility of a destabilizing military response on the part of Iran, with some going so far as question Iran’s capability to carry out any such actions“: “The mood in the Arab Gulf countries has not reflected nervousness about a possible Iranian reprisal on their soil…. It seems that the view in the Gulf is that ‘a small-scale reprisal seems possible’, as one Western diplomat put it. He said that the Iranians were aware that the aim of the Israelis and the outgoing Trump administration in the US was to complicate any prospect of the incoming Biden administration returning to a diplomatic course with Iran…. For some in the Gulf, Iran now is too weak to pose a major threat. They are even comparing the regime in Tehran to the illusory power of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq before the US-led invasion and occupation of Baghdad in 2003.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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