In one sense, the year is ending the same way it began: with the world waiting to see how Iran responds to the assassination of one of its top officials.
But while the Islamic Republic lashed out after the January killing of its top military commander, Qassem Soleimani, by firing rockets at U.S. military bases and bringing the Middle East to the brink of war, its response to the latest targeted killing has thus far been more nuanced.
Iran is treading cautiously in the wake of the Nov. 27 assassination of its top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, even as legislation passed Wednesday commits the government to accelerating the country’s controversial nuclear program.
Despite scorching rhetoric – Tehran has vowed a “crushing response” to those responsible – the regime appears anxious not to fall into the trap it believes has been set for it.
The legislation approved by Iran’s Guardian Council is a significant step – it calls for United Nations inspections of the country’s nuclear program to be suspended and for the government to immediately begin enriching uranium to 20-per-cent purity – but it’s a less ferocious reaction than some observers had feared. (Enriching uranium to that level is well above what’s required for civilian purposes, though still below what’s required to produce a nuclear weapon.)
Analysts say Iran’s leaders view the murder of Prof. Fakhrizadeh as a calculated provocation – carried out by Israel, with the backing of the Trump administration – aimed at luring Iran into a military response that would damage relations with the incoming administration of U.S. president-elect Joe Biden.
“They’ve quickly stated that they have no intention of immediately reacting. They’re trying not to respond to the Israeli provocation and [instead] build on the international outrage,” said Sanam Vakil, an Iran expert at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. The assassination has been condemned by governments around the Middle East, including some of those usually allied with the United States, and was labelled a “criminal act” by the European Union.
The barrage of rockets Iran launched against two U.S. bases in neighbouring Iraq after the Jan. 3 killing of Gen. Soleimani – which caused more than 100 injuries but no deaths – was calculated to exact as much revenge as possible without provoking all-out war. Iran doesn’t seem interested in testing where that line is this time.
Israel has neither confirmed nor denied its role in the sophisticated attack near Tehran that killed Prof. Fakhrizadeh – which according to Iranian media involved a machine gun operated by remote control and mounted on the back of a truck that later detonated – but Dr. Vakil said there was “no question at all” that Israel was responsible.
Joseph Bayeh, an assistant professor of international relations at Qatar University, said Iran seems to understand that any military response could trigger an attack on its nuclear facilities by Israel – and perhaps by the U.S. as well.
President Donald Trump is reported to have asked advisers last month, shortly after his election loss to Mr. Biden, to lay out his options for striking Iran. Prof. Bayeh said Iran’s position was further weakened by an “anti-Iran alliance” that has taken solid form this year via pacts Israel has signed to formalize diplomatic ties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, two Persian Gulf states hostile to Iranian influence in the region.
“I don’t see any good cards in Iran’s hand to play right now. The only good move is to sleep on this and to wait a little bit. I don’t see any retaliation in the near future,” Prof. Bayeh said.
The presumed motive for the assassination of Prof. Fakhrizadeh is to make it more difficult for Mr. Biden to rejoin a 2015 nuclear deal, which was negotiated while Mr. Biden was vice-president to Barack Obama and which Mr. Trump pulled the U.S. out of in 2018. The original deal – known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – saw the U.S., Russia, China and the EU agree to end economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.
There are signs that the killing of Prof. Fakhrizadeh may lead to a hardening of Tehran’s negotiating position regarding a renewed JCPOA. In addition to accelerating its nuclear push ahead of Mr. Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20, Iran is expected to demand compensation for the economic damage it suffered after Mr. Trump withdrew from the original deal and reimposed U.S. sanctions.
The assassination “is going to make the negotiating process more protracted,” Dr. Vakil said. “They’re upping the ante of their asks.”
In an interview this week with The New York Times, Mr. Biden renewed his campaign vow to rejoin the JCPOA, saying it was the “best way to achieve getting some stability in the region.” He said restarting the agreement would need to be followed by pacts dealing with issues not covered by the JCPOA, such as Iran’s ballistic-missile program and its armed proxies in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.
But Mr. Biden won’t be able to set terms for negotiations on his own. With Iran’s presidential elections scheduled for June, there are also internal Iranian politics at play.
Although it’s unknown who the candidates will be, departing President Hassan Rouhani, who views the JCPOA as a key achievement, would like to see the deal back in place before the election to give his moderate allies a boost. Hardliners, who see the U.S. withdrawal from the deal as proof the regime cannot trust the West, would like to forestall negotiations until after the June vote.
That split was on display in Tehran this week. The country’s parliament, which is dominated by anti-Western hardliners, passed the legislation calling for the acceleration of the country’s nuclear program on Tuesday. The move was opposed on Wednesday by Mr. Rouhani, who said the act was “harmful for the trend of diplomatic activities.” He was immediately overruled by the all-powerful Guardian Council, which is controlled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Abas Aslani, the former director of international news at Iran’s privately owned Tasnim news agency, said the expedited nuclear effort would likely only be part of Iran’s eventual response to Prof. Fakhrizadeh’s assassination. “Iran sees that [it is] inevitable to respond in order to establish a deterrence and block further actions,” said Mr. Aslani, who is also a senior research fellow at the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies, which is based in Ankara. “I think there will be a response – but when and how is not clear.”
Even less clear is what Mr. Trump may be seeking to achieve in the region during his final weeks in the White House.
“There are concerns that Trump is going to do something major before he leaves office,” Prof. Bayeh said, adding that the President has already made it difficult for his successor to simply return to the JCPOA without looking like he has capitulated to Tehran. “It would be impossible for Biden to go back to the table in the current situation – Donald Trump has made sure to make it impossible.”
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