Iran has promised to exact “harsh revenge”, after top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was assassinated, in an explosion and a hail of bullets near Tehran on Friday.
Fakhrizadeh, was the head of the research and innovation organisation in Iran’s defence ministry. Western and Israeli intelligence had suspected him of leading the nation’s military nuclear programme until it was disbanded in 2003.
Iran has not minced words in pointing the blame for Fakhrizadeh’s assassination at Israel, a key United States ally. Israel has been the biggest supporter of US President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran.
There has been no claim of responsibility for the killing of Fakhrizadeh.
The United Nations and European countries have urged restraint as tensions are spiking before outgoing US President Donald Trump in January hands over the presidency to Joe Biden, who has promised to reverse his hardline approach towards Iran.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in a tweet on Saturday it is “shameful that some refuse to stand against terrorism and hide behind calls for restraint”.
Iran likely to pursue military response
According to Diako Hosseini, a senior researcher with the Center for Strategic Studies, Iran is unlikely to pursue a military response in the short term, but that does not mean the assassination of Fakhrizadeh will go unanswered.
“I think at the moment, evaluating all the aspects of this assassination and legally pursuing it would have a higher priority for Iran,” Hosseini told Al Jazeera.
“Iran knows well that the political aspect of this assassination is a more important goal for Israel: to escalate tensions before the end of the Trump administration and dragging Iran and the US into a larger confrontation that will make the path of diplomacy more difficult for the next US administration.”
Hosseini believes Israel will ultimately not gain anything by this assassination because Iran’s nuclear programme is no longer dependent on individuals.
“Netanyahu made Israel more unsafe with this assassination,” he said in reference to the Israeli prime minister.
“The list of Iranian scientists assassinated by Israel has grown longer and Iran’s security organisations feel pressured to retaliate in order to keep the psychological balance and make a political reprisal.”
Several Iranian nuclear scientists killed
A decade ago, several Iranian nuclear scientists were assassinated in attacks, that Israel has long been suspected of carrying out.
Tehran has long maintained its nuclear programme is peaceful.
Trita Parsi, executive vice-president of the Washington-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, believes Iran could respond militarily to Fakhrizadeh’s assassination.
“But it seems unlikely that it will target US interests. And even if they target Israeli interests, Tehran is likely to seek plausible deniability in order to make further escalation more difficult,” he said.
According to Parsi, a debate over how Iran should react is continuing among the Iranian authorities.
On one hand, he said, Rouhani announced publicly that Iran will not fall for Israel’s trap by responding carelessly. And on the other, “there are elements who argue that these assassinations only take place because Iran had not responded to previous attacks, and provocations and future attacks will only stop if Iran retaliates harshly to this one”.
Parsi said the timing of Iran’s response will depend on how the internal debate evolves and how Western states – and Biden’s team – react to the assassination.
“Weak responses from the outside will likely make the internal demands for a swift Iranian response stronger,” he said.
So far, both Trump and Biden have refrained from directly addressing the assassination. However, Trump retweeted Israeli writer Yossi Melman, who said Mohsen’s death “a major psychological and professional blow for Iran”.
Iran’s promise of harsh revenge
Iran’s promise of “harsh revenge” for Fakhrizadeh echoed the promise made after top general Qassem Soleimani. A US drone strike in Baghdad in early January had killed Soleimani, one of the most powerful men in Iran.
Days after the strike, Iran launched missiles at two US bases in Iraq in retaliation. The attack inflicted no casualties, but left more than 100 American soldiers with mild traumatic brain injuries.
Iran has since said the true revenge for Soleimani’s assassination will be the full withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.
Abas Aslani, a senior research fellow at the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies, said that no one has yet to accept responsibility for Fakhrizadeh’s assassination. And Iran has no time constraint in its response. So an Iranian move could come either before or after Biden enters the White House on January 20, 2021.
“The important thing about the timing is who the response will be directed at. If it’s just Israel, it’s even possible that a response will come before the inauguration,” Aslani said.
But if Iran also finds the US complicit in the attack, he added, US interests in the region could be at risk.
He said at least a part of Iran’s response will be military in nature. “But it will also look to get condemnations from countries and international organisations through politically following up on the issue”.
Days before Fakhrizadeh’s assassination, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was on a tour of the region. He also visited Iranian rivals Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
A major stated purpose of the visits was ramping up pressure on Iran.
Trump also recently considered strikes on Iran, including attacking its main nuclear facilities in Natanz, according to US media reports.
‘Shift to operational phase’
Tehran-based defence and security expert Hossein Dalirian said, he has no doubt that Israeli’s Mossad was behind Fakhrizadeh’s assassination. Iran will react to the killing, he added.
Dalirian said despite what some might believe, avenging Fakhrizadeh will not involve using missiles.
“It appears this revenge will entail intensifying an intelligence battle, and Iran’s re-entry into operational phase and retaliation,” he said.
He said Iran will decide the time and place, but the country’s revenge will be certain.