By now, news of the assassination of the project-head of Iran’s nuclear weapons effort, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, has gone around the world. What is less clear, however, is the identity of the perpetrators – and why they would undertake such a move.
On the surface, both elements seem obvious – the Israelis have a clear motivation for wishing to stab at Iran’s nuclear effort and some form for doing so in the past via targeted killings. Something that had also been done to other nations as and when convenient (including their rather inspired choice of hiring none other than Otto Skorzeny in return for a faked ‘pardon’ for his Nazi service, to get at German scientists working for Egypt in the 1960s).
And I do not disagree that Israel is the most likely suspect. Although their actual reasoning for a strike would be somewhat different than the intuitive suggestion that this is merely about attempting to frustrate Iran’s nuclear capability development. And, further, that they are unlikely to be the sole conspirator (a contradiction in terms).
As ever, the timing of events is crucial. We are in the dying days of the Trump Administration. The Netanyahu-dominated government of Israel knows this – and knows that its much free-er hand in the Middle East thanks to a pliant and pliable President in Washington, is similarly likely to be facing impending restraint from the incoming Biden regime. After all, it was the Obama Administration in which Biden served who took the radically logical step to actually endeavour to negotiate (and successfully, it must be added) with Tehran rather than continuing to treat them fruitlessly as international pariahs.
Said Administration – the Obama one, I mean – had also pointedly opposed Israel’s efforts at destabilizing the situation via ongoing covert escapades and assassinations. And while it could therefore be fairly suggested that the Israelis might have chosen to ‘get while the getting was good’, I think that there is something else going on here. Something that has both had a longer-term buildup to it; and which may very well have taken place in some form regardless of recent US political events.
We have recently seen Israel act with the Trump Administration and also off its own bat to shore up the ‘Saudi-Israeliya’ axis of allies amidst certain Arab states; moves and maneuvers that have enabled an ‘above-ground’ rapproachment between governments that had long been working together ‘under the table’, and opened the door to the greater provision of American military hardware to same. This was evidently a long-term project which had been designed to make the region (south of Iraq and Syria, at least) more ‘resilient’ against perceived Iranian influence – and hopefully help to prevent another Syria or another Yemen (where the Sunni-Saudi-Israeli alignment has either been stymied or is getting a severely bloody nose and looking bad whilst doing it, respectively).
We have also recently seen Trump bluster about starting a war with Iran – not only via his reckless attitude towards the assassination of Major General Qassem Soleimani towards the start of this year (which triggered a symbolically necessary Iranian reprisal strike), but also following the Election. And it is that last element which is key here.
Little more than a week after it became apparent that he had not (immediately) won, Trump conjured together his Vice President, Secretary of State, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defence Secretary, with a view towards exploring strike options against Iran. At the time, it seemed like a curious maneuver – one which might have presented a convenient sideshow spectacle as post-electoral shenanigans were engaged in back home, perhaps.
However, read in light of the above, this recent targeted killing of an Iranian nuclear official may suggest that instead of an overt and blustery ‘symbolic’ blow in the manner of the cruise missile strike against a Syrian airbase in 2017, the Trump Administration may have given the go-ahead to something different. And much more cunning.
You see, the net impact of this most recent assassination isn’t really going to be much of a dent in the Iranian nuclear project. That’s not what it was designed to do. Rather, it is all about the optics of the thing – it is a ‘showy move’ of a different, and a far more ‘slow-burning’ kind. It is about making it far more difficult for the incoming Biden Administration to actually resume nuclear rapprochement with Tehran. Both due to the lingering perception that the Americans may have been implicitly involved in giving the Israelis a green light for the killing, as well as the plausible retaliatory action that Iran may now engage in against whomever it is that they officially declare to have been responsible. The Trump Administration will likely double down upon the action – if not claiming credit for it, then claiming that it was a moral and just action to have occurred and offering their support to whomever it was that pulled the metaphorical trigger.
A much more tense situation between Iran and the West, between the countries on either side of the Persian Gulf, is exactly what the Israeli government dearly wishes. They have been quite dismayed at the manner in which the Trump Administration’s singularly inept blustery-shouting-that-it-is-
So, whether this was an Israeli operation or one that the Americans nudged into occurrence (perhaps this is a part of why Pompeo was in Jerusalem last week), I think that the outgoing Trump Administration will have some small cause for celebration this week. They have managed to secure something they have dearly desired – a likely frustration and hamstringing for the incoming Biden Administration’s presumed intent to re-engage with Iran. And therefore, perhaps, Trump won’t have to see if he can start an overt and conventional war with Iran between now and January in order to have a lasting ‘strike from the grave’ at his soon-to-be replacement’s ambitions and Presidency.
As I say – this is cunning. It is slow burning. The only serious question is – just how much of the Middle East may yet burn as a result of it. Hopefully, the wisdom and restraint demonstrated by the Iranians when dealing with the deliberate provocations of the Americans shall once again come to the fore. During the January retaliation for the murder of Major General Soleimanei, it was noted that the missile-strike was very much a symbolic one – it satisfied in some limited sense, the visual requirement for Iranian retribution to be ‘seen to be done’, without actually causing sufficient damage nor casualties to the Americans to then militate a subsequent escalation from that quarter (no doubt to the great disappointment of some).
Perhaps there is room for some similarly line-walking careful placement of foot so as to avoid both accelerator and landmine over the next two months as we all collectively wait for the clock to run down on the Trump Administration. Careful, cautious, and perspicacious consideration from Iran, I mean. I don’t think anybody else involved is nearly so keen to avoid dragging the Americans into a pointless quagmire, including various of the (outgoing) Americans themselves.