Scenes of anger in the Iranian parliament Tuesday revealed the depth of divisions and discontent in Iran. The country’s top nuclear scientist was killed in broad daylight, but Iran’s options to respond are very limited. Any escalatory step without precise calculations could be very costly.
An event as massive as the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh is certain to inflame deep divisions within the Iranian establishment. There are hardliners who seek immediate revenge for the killing of Fakhrizadeh in an operation inside Iran, while the scientist was with his aides and bodyguards. These hardliners believe that Iran must act now, especially since there was no major Iranian retaliation for the assassination of the commander of the Quds Force in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Major General Qassem Suleimani, about a year ago.
Others in Iran are more cautious. They fear that an impulsive, quick and ill-considered response is a “booby trap” that might lead to open confrontation only a few weeks before the Joe Biden administration takes office in America.
Yet, regardless of the anger, tricky calculations, and divisions, the most difficult thing for Iranian officials, whether reformists or hardliners, remains the nature of the response and where.
It is unthinkable that Iran could fire missiles at Haifa as some hardliners in Iran have advocated. Not only because of the unknown military implications of such a move in Israel, but also because a response of this kind would restrict the Biden administration’s options in trying to return to the Iran nuclear deal during the first six months of his administration. A European official told Al-Ahram Weekly that officials from Germany, France and Britain phoned Iranian officials and called on them to exercise restraint and not take reckless action.
“For weeks now there has been coordination between German, French and British officials with people in the Biden team to return to the nuclear agreement. European officials have drawn up an action plan to help the upcoming Biden administration to restore the nuclear deal. Therefore, the last thing we want is a military escalation,” the official told the Weekly.
There are many reasons to believe that Iran will take its time before responding. What the government says for domestic consumption in statements by political and military figures is usually not translated into action.
There are two possible motives behind the killing of Fakhrizadeh. First, to jeopardise potential improvements in relations between Iran and the new Biden administration. Second, to draw Iran to engage in a retaliatory act.
Retaliation for the killing of Fakhrizadeh is important, but restoring the nuclear deal is a bigger prize for Iran. That is the one thing that will unite the hardliners and the reformists.
And while Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called for “definite punishment” of those responsible for the assassination, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s tone was different.
“The enemies are experiencing stressful weeks,” Rouhani said in his first remarks on the killing. “They are mindful that the global situation is changing and are trying to make the most of these days to create unstable conditions in the region,” he added.
When Rouhani refers to Iran’s “enemies” he is evidently talking about the Trump administration and Israel.
Practically, what is left for Iran is symbolic political action, especially as Iranian leaders are coming to the conclusion that the killing of Fakhrizadeh was a spoiler aimed at Biden’s new foreign policy.
Iran’s parliament on Tuesday advanced a bill that would end UN inspections of its nuclear facilities and require the government to boost its uranium enrichment if European signatories to the 2015 nuclear deal do not provide relief from oil and banking sanctions.
The vote to debate the bill, which would need to pass through several other stages before becoming law, was an apparent show of defiance after the killing.
Iran’s official IRNA news agency said 251 lawmakers in the 290-seat chamber voted in favour, after which many began chanting “Death to America!” and “Death to Israel!”
The bill would give European countries three months to ease sanctions on Iran’s key oil and gas sector and to restore its access to the international banking system. The US imposed crippling sanctions on Iran after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the 2015 nuclear agreement, triggering a series of escalations between the two sides.
The bill would have authorities resume enriching uranium to 20 per cent, which is below the threshold needed for nuclear weapons but higher than that required for civilian application. It would also commission new centrifuges at nuclear facilities at Natanz and the underground Fordo site.
Parliament would need to hold another vote to pass the bill, which would also require approval by the Guardian Council, Iran’s constitutional watchdog. Lawmakers have pressed for a more confrontational approach since the US withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018.
The bill was first tabled in parliament in August but gained new momentum after the killing of Fakhrizadeh. Some Iranian officials have suggested that the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has been regularly inspecting Iran’s nuclear facilities in recent years as part of the 2015 agreement, may have been a source of intelligence for Fakhrizadeh’s killers.
The head of the Expediency Council, Mohsen Rezaei, has pointed to security and intelligence lapses. “Iranian intelligence agencies must detect infiltrators and sources of foreign spy services, and thwart the formation of assassination teams,” he said.
Many Iranians on social media have asked how, despite Iran’s rhetoric about its military and intelligence superiority, someone so well-guarded could be assassinated in broad daylight. Many unanswered questions remain. Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the country’s Supreme National Security Council, accused Israel of using “electronic devices” to remotely kill the scientist.
Shamkhani’s remarks drastically change the story of Fakhrizadeh’s killing, which took place Friday. Authorities initially said a truck exploded and then gunmen opened fire on the scientist, killing him and a bodyguard. State TV even interviewed a man the night of the attack who described seeing gunmen open fire.
State TV’s English-language broadcaster Press TV reported Monday that a weapon recovered from the scene of the attack bore “the logo and specifications of the Israeli military industry”. State TV’s Arabic-language channel, Al-Alam, claimed the weapons used were “controlled by satellite”, a claim also made by the semi-official Fars news agency.
None of the outlets immediately offered evidence supporting their claims, which also give authorities a way to explain why no one was reportedly arrested at the scene.
“Unfortunately, the operation was a very complicated operation and was carried out using electronic devices,” Shamkhani told state TV. “No individual was present at the site.”
Satellite control of weapons is nothing new. Armed, long-range drones, for instance, rely on satellite connections to be controlled by their remote pilots. Remote-controlled gun turrets also exist, but typically see their operator connected by a hard line to cut down on the delay in commands being relayed. Israel uses such hard-wired systems along the border with the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
While technically feasible, it wasn’t immediately clear if such a system had been used before, said Jeremy Binnie, the Mideast editor of Jane’s Defence Weekly.
“Could you set up a weapon with a camera which then has a feed that uses an open satellite communications line back to the controller?” Binnie asked. “I can’t see why that’s not possible,” Binnie added, speaking to the Associated Press.
In question also is whether the truck that exploded during the attack detonated afterwards, aiming to destroy a satellite-controlled machine gun that was hidden inside the vehicle. Iranian officials did not immediately comment. Such a scenario would also require someone on the ground to set up the weapon.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly