As time has elapsed since the killing of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on 27 November, the chances for quick retaliation are fading away.
After the assassination, in an operation east of Tehran attributed to Israel’s Mossad, senior Iranian leaders have used harsh language to promise revenge, not only against Israel but also the United States and Israel’s new allies in the region, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
Among those vowing retribution were President Hassan Rouhani and military confidants of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, including former Defence Minister Ahmad Wahidi.
But the inflammatory rhetoric subdsided. Gut feelings made room for cool-headed decisions. The first question to be asked is, why? Why did Israel decide to kill him?
Who was Mohsen Fakhrizadeh?
Top Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was gunned down outside Tehran on Friday, a move declared an “act of state terror” by Iran’s foreign minister.
Though it is unclear who is behind the assassination, it is likely to precipitate tensions comparable to the 3 January US killing of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani.
Fakhrizadeh is renowned as the architect of Iran’s military nuclear programme.
He became the face of Iran’s nuclear ambitions when named in the International Atomic Energy Agency’s 2015 “final assessment” of open questions about Iran’s nuclear programme and whether it was aimed at developing a nuclear bomb.
The IAEA’s report said that he oversaw activities “in support of a possible military dimension to [Iran’s] nuclear programme” within the so-called AMAD Plan.
Iran denies ever having sought to develop a nuclear weapon.
Believed to be a senior officer in the elite Revolutionary Guard, Fakhrizadeh was the only Iranian the report identified.
The IAEA has long wanted to meet Fakhrizadeh as part of a protracted investigation into whether Iran carried out illicit nuclear weapons research.
Showing no sign it would heed the request, Iran acknowledged Fakhrizadeh’s existence several years ago but said he was an army officer not involved in the nuclear programme, according to a diplomatic source who spoke to Reuters.
Fakhrizadeh was also named in a 2007 UN resolution on Iran as a person involved in nuclear or ballistic missile activities.
An exiled Iranian opposition group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), in May 2011 issued a report with what it said was a photograph of Fakhrizadeh, with dark hair and stubble. It was not possible to independently verify the picture.
The NCRI said in the report that Fakhrizadeh was born in 1958 in the holy city of Qom, was a deputy defence minister and a Revolutionary Guard brigadier-general.
According to the NCRI, the scientist held a nuclear engineering doctorate and taught at Iran’s University of Imam Hussein.
Fakhrizadeh’s assassination comes at a time of rising tensions, with Tehran fearing that outgoing US President Donald Trump could lash out before his term ends on 20 January.
Fakhrizadeh was mentioned by name by the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he made a 2018 speech detailing an alleged archive of nuclear plans reportedly stolen from Iran.
“Remember that name, Fakhrizadeh,” Netanyahu said.
In the same speech, the Israeli premier said the scientist had continued to work on “special projects” at the Iranian defence ministry after his military nuclear outfit was closed.
Fakhrizadeh was reportedly wanted by Mossad, and has previously escaped an assassination attempt.
Fakhrizadeh was a gifted nuclear physicist, who taught and researched at Imam Hossein University in his nation’s capital city. But he was also a brigadier-general in the Revolutionary Guard and deputy defence minister.
For years, Israeli, American, British and German intelligence services have said that his academic credentials were just a front for his real work as head of the secret military nuclear programme focusing on weaponisation – to produce nuclear bombs.
In documents from the Iranian nuclear archives stolen in 2018 by Mossad and partially published in the media, evidence was seen of Fakhrizadeh’s involvement with Iran’s development of weapons – including a recording of his voice, in which he talks about five bombs and the need for tests.
Eventually Mossad, using technological and digital surveillance, as well as agents on the ground, found soft spots in Fakhrizadeh’s security
Because of these suspicious, the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency demanded to interview him twice, once a decade ago and again six years ago, but the request was rejected by the Iranian authorities.
It is not publicly known if Fakhrizadeh was working on weaponising Iran’s nuclear capabilities at the time of his death.
Western intelligence communities have tried to follow Fakhrizadeh, bug his phones and computers, and collect information about him.
Mossad went further and a few times even planned to kill him, but Fakhrizadeh was cautious, highly suspicious and evasive. He uncovered the plots against his life, went underground, and the security around him was doubled, around the clock.
In the end it was not sufficient. Eventually Mossad, using technological and digital surveillance, as well as agents on the ground, found soft spots in his security. On Sunday, Iran said that a satellite-controlled machine gun with “artificial intelligence” had been used to kill the scientist.
Avoiding the trap
The desire to assassinate a wanted man is not enough.
To carry out the plan, Mossad also needed accurate information and operational feasibility. Once Israel had acquired the desire, precise intelligence and logistical capabilities, only the question of timing – of why now – remained.
It was most likely that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is the ultimate authority in approving or denying whether Mossad chief Yossi Cohen can carry out such a mission, had consulted with outgoing US President Donald Trump.
Trump and his security and military aides must have been privy to the secret decision, because the US had to prepare itself for all eventualities, including the worst-case scenario: Iran deciding to retaliate by hitting US targets, such as its bases in Bahrain or Qatar.
This leads to the almost inevitable conclusion that Netanyahu and Trump hoped to provoke Iran.
Their hopeful scenario could have been that after Fakhrizadeh had been killed, Tehran would retaliate against the US, which would leave Trump with no choice but to declare war on Iran. If this was their plan, they wanted also to embarrass President-elect Joe Biden.
After their initial, emotional reaction, Iran’s leaders understood the Israeli-American conspiracy and decided not to fall into the trap.
Iran still seeks revenge and prepares its intelligence agencies to be ready. But Tehran anxiously awaits Biden and his incoming administration. It hopes that the Democrat will bring the US back into the 2015 nuclear deal, known as JCPOA, and lift the crippling sanctions Trump has imposed over the past two years.
After their initial, emotional reaction, Iran’s leaders understood the Israeli-American conspiracy and decided not to fall into the trap
All things considered, it is very unlikely that Iran will retaliate against US targets at all, and certainly not before Biden enters the White House on 20 January. The Iranians are looking beyond that date, however, in the knowledge that the new administration will need a few more months to formulate its policy and re-enter the nuclear deal, if it does so at all.
Yet Iran may eventually be disappointed. Contrary to how Netanyahu and US Republicans portray Biden, as weak and soft on Iran, he is not in Iran’s pocket. Biden wants to revive the nuclear deal and bring Iran into the international family of nations. But not at any cost.
Biden and some of his future cabinet nominees have hinted that they wish to improve the nuclear deal and close some of the loopholes in it. These include the notion of a “sunset” – when the agreement will expire – which Biden certainly doesn’t want to happen in 2025, as the original agreement stipulates.
He also hopes to persuade Iran to expand the deal so it will address the issues of long-range missiles, Iran’s destabilising interventions in the Middle East and its support for militant groups.
In a way Iran is trapped. It desperately needs the sanctions to be lifted, otherwise with its deteriorating economy it will find itself in an economic, social and political catastrophe.
But Tehran also, as a matter of national pride and due its inner divisions between reformists and conservatives, will find it difficult to further compromise.
On the other hand, Iran has no hesitations about its desire and readiness to strike Israeli targets. But its capabilities are limited.
It doesn’t want to launch its long-range missiles from its own soil, knowing that not only will Israel retaliate with an iron fist, but also it may leave the US no choice but to rush and help its ally.
The other punitive measure available for the Iranian strategic planners is to launch its missiles from Syria. But here, too, its hands are tied. Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would not approve it, and again Israel would respond harshly.
Another possibility is that Iran will conduct cyber-warfare against major Israeli strategic sites and infrastructure. However, Israeli cyber-capabilities – defensive and offensive – are much more superior than Iran’s.
A year ago, Iran tried to strike Israeli critical infrastructure, but caused minimal damage to a few water pumps. However, a few years earlier it did manage to succeed in inflicting major damage to Saudi Arabia’s computers managing its oil industry.
The other option for Iran is to command its most reliable proxy, Hezbollah, to shower Israel with missiles from Lebanon. Yet, Iran, Hezbollah and the weak Lebanese government in Beirut know full well that any Israeli response would be swift and painful, to the point that Lebanon as a whole may collapse.
So, what is left for Iran is more of the same: to try to target Israelis abroad.
It has tried this in the past, after Mossad assassinated five Iranian scientists in the streets of Tehran between 2010-2012, and Hezbollah’s military chief Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus in 2008.
Most of these Iranian efforts were thwarted by Israeli intelligence. There is no indication they would be more successful now.