The killing of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh near Tehran last month has raised the spectre of a major conflict in the Middle East and possibly of a war between the Islamic Republic and Israel, which has been blamed for the assassination of the head of Iran’s military nuclear programme.
The Iranian regime is under immense pressure at home to take revenge for Fakhrizadeh’s killing after it has suffered a wave of assassinations of its top nuclear scientists and airstrikes that have killed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commanders.
The revenge rhetoric is still echoing in Tehran as the country mourns the slain scientist. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has demanded the “definitive punishment” of those behind Fakhrizadeh’s killing.
However, Tehran, which is facing increasingly difficult choices, is more likely to weigh its options carefully and choose the right moment to respond to Fakhrizadeh’s death.
Against this backdrop of escalating tensions and expected reactions there are multiple scenarios for Iran to respond to the death of Fakhrizadeh, whom Israel accused of helping the country to develop nuclear weapons.
Iran could push towards confrontation in several disputes. In the Arab Gulf, where the United States maintains several bases and a huge naval presence, Iran could initiate missile attacks against the American forces or allies in the region.
Iranian IRGC elements in Syria could act more aggressively on the Golan Heights front with Israel, where Iranian forces are reportedly continuing to expand their military presence in parts of eastern Syria.
In Lebanon, the Iran-backed Hizbullah group could begin working to retaliate for the killing of Fakhrizadeh, whether by missile attacks against Israel’s strategic sites or by carrying out cross-border raids.
Tehran could harness the Iran-backed militia networks in Iraq to conduct a series of attacks against US diplomatic and military targets in the country. Iran responded to the killing of ISGC General Qassem Al-Suleimani earlier this year by launching missiles at two US military bases in Iraq.
In addition, Iran could carry out attacks on Israeli targets abroad, including in countries which have normalised relations with Tel Aviv recently, such as Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
As for timing, Iran will respond to Fakhrizadeh’s assassination with a reprisal of some sort. Its leaders are well-practised in calibrating their retaliation to promote their real interests and are expected to choose a “proper time” of their own.
But while experts ponder what the scope and level of Iran’s next move will be, tensions remain high in the Middle East as fears rise that a tit-for-tat response could spill over into a larger regional conflict.
Even so, whether within Iranian politics, or at foreign-policy level, Iran does not stand to gain from any renewed conflict in the region, and the leaders of the Islamic Republic should choose to stifle their resentments and resort to diplomacy instead.
Diplomacy would certainly mean in the first place that Tehran should be trying to avoid sabotaging US President-elect Joe Biden’s much-expected Iran policy, which could lower tensions with the Islamic Republic.
Biden has signalled that he still backs the 2015 deal negotiated under former US president Barack Obama and that he will return the United States to the nuclear accord with Iran as part of Washington’s priority to prevent the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon.
But devising an effective US strategy on Iran will be one of Biden’s toughest foreign-policy challenges. Given the conflicting legacy of outgoing US president Donald Trump’s policies in the Middle East, Biden’s approach is expected to run into a challenging reality.
Biden has already attached strings to his offer to re-enter the nuclear deal, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and to lift the US sanctions on Iran, which will come into force only when Iran complies fully with its terms.
Sophisticated observers of the Middle East have long predicted that a new and broader Iran nuclear accord must be reached in order to address flaws in the old one and to exploit the new reality in the post-Trump Middle East.
Arab governments in the Gulf and the government of Germany have warned that the 2015 deal was no longer enough and that any new agreement should also include controlling Tehran’s ballistic-missile programme and reining in its regional proxies.
Whether Iran can look at the new reality objectively and consent to finally play by the rules, or whether it will opt instead to throw everything away and stick to its old and failed policy instead, is now the most-pressing question that Tehran has to answer.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has reiterated his rejection of talks to reopen the JCPOA, saying Tehran will not renegotiate a deal which it has negotiated already.
Iran’s parliament has also passed a bill that will prevent UN inspections of its nuclear sites and require the government to resume enriching uranium to a degree that can be used in a nuclear bomb.
Meantime, Esmail Qaani, the commander of the IRGC’s Al-Quds Force, visited Lebanon and Iraq last week to warn affiliated militias and political factions to remain on high alert after Fakhrizadeh’s killing.
Whether Iran is biding its time in the hope of more amenable negotiations with the Biden administration after the new US president’s inauguration in January, or whether it is playing its usual game of giving a little and hoping for a lot, the risks of escalation and conflict remain clear.
Many observers are concerned that the Iranian leaders may be resorting to their traditional pattern of playing a high game in a bid to carry on with their dangerous adventures in the region.
The problem is that they may be proved wrong this time round.
It is not clear how the Biden administration can commit to a return to the 2015 nuclear deal and lift the US sanctions if it cannot wring concessions from Iran on relevant issues.
Trump’s maximum-pressure policy on Iran to force it to alter its behaviour and probably with the aim of triggering social and political upheavals is crippling Iran’s economy and causing hardship for the Iranian people.
The geopolitical reverberations of the normalisation of relations between Israel and the Arab countries in the Gulf are expected to have a huge impact on the regional balance of power and particularly on Iran.
The expansion of military, intelligence and technical cooperation between Israel and the Arab Gulf nations will increase the latter’s ability to address the military threats emanating from Iran.
One of the major developments that will further minimise Iran’s regional influence is rapprochement between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the likely movement towards resolving the Gulf crisis.
In Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, efforts are being made to contain and check Iran’s proxies by resorting to tougher measures to challenge them on the ground, including by the use of force.
All the signals point to an outcome to Iran’s regional behaviour that will emphasise that the destructive role it plays beyond its borders has now become intolerable and counterproductive.
That said, a new geopolitical landscape is now in place in the Middle East that provides an opportunity to marshal efforts for a comprehensive package with Iran that will cover all issues pertaining to regional security and stability.
As a regional power, Iran needs to take the initiative to go beyond its narrow geopolitical interests and ideological ambitions and to work together with other nations to build a new regional order free of rivalry and conflicts.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.