Public statements from Iranian officials, MPs and military commanders this week vowed retaliation for the assassination of the country’s top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, with the finger being pointed at Israel.
When US drones assassinated Iranian commander Qassem Al-Suleimani in January this year, the Iranian reaction was the rocket-bombing of a military base in Iraq hosting US troops. There were no casualties, however, and it was understood at the time that the Iranian attack had been communicated in advance, whether through the Iraqi authorities or otherwise.
However, this time round Fakhrizadeh was assassinated near the Iranian capital Tehran – not in Iraq, like Al-Suleimani – and it is Israel that Iran has accused of being behind his death and not the Americans.
Were Iran to target the Israelis in retaliation, it might think of doing so where they can now move freely, in other words just across the Gulf on the western side of the waterway.
Bahrain and the UAE normalised their relations with Israel earlier this year, and Israelis can now travel to both countries without needing a visa. The Iranians might even think that the recently reported meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Crown-Prince Mohamed Bin Salman and outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had “rubber-stamped” the assassination.
However, the mood in the Arab Gulf countries has not reflected nervousness about a possible Iranian reprisal on their soil. The Gulf media reported the assassination, but it did not exaggerate it, aside from some Saudi outlets that extended their coverage in a way that looked like gloating.
The Saudis are bitter about Iranian interference in the region, and they suffer a direct threat in the daily attacks by the Houthi militia in Yemen using Iranian-made drones and rockets.
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.
Even some Iranian reactions have admitted that the assassination could have been a provocation by the Israelis in order to get the Iranians to respond and thus close the door on any overture from the Biden team.
But downplaying the response from Tehran does not necessarily mean it is not going to retaliate. It might not be able to wait until after 20 January when Joe Biden is inaugurated as the next president of the United States.
Iran’s vendetta now is with the Israelis, even if they carried out the clandestine operation in coordination with the Americans. Hardliners in the Iranian regime will have to reclaim any credibility they have left, especially as they will need to save face in front of their own people and to some extent also in front of their proxies in the region like the Lebanese Hizbullah group and the Yemeni Houthis.
A senior figure in Hizbullah has said that retaliation for the scientist’s assassination is a matter for Iran, indicating that the Lebanese militia is not planning on opening up a new front with Israel. The Houthis might intensify their attacks on Saudi Arabia, but that would not be an escalation unless they are used as a cover for an Iranian drone or missile strike on Saudi oil installations as happened in autumn last year.
Another option for Iran is to target Israelis in a Gulf country. However, its Arab neighbours in the Gulf have been securing their societies against such a possibility for a long time. With security and intelligence cooperation with Israel now in place, their internal security defences against any Iranian plot are stronger.
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.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly