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Iranian Scientist’s Death Rocks Middle East

Dec 15, 2020
  • He Wenping

    Research Fellow, West Asia and Africa Studies Institute of the China Academy of Social Sciences

On Nov. 27, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a leading Iranian nuclear scientist and head of the defense ministry’s research and innovation organization, was assassinated near Tehran, the Iranian capital. Although no group or individual has claimed responsibility, Iran has suggested Israel played a role and accused the United States of involvement.

Angry Iranian protesters took to the streets, stomping American and Israeli flags. Commanders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps have vowed to retaliate. Israel immediately put its embassies around the world and its troops on high alert, as the crisis-ridden Middle East has again been thrown into a dangerous situation. 

The assassination came at an extremely sensitive time. In the U.S., election results have settled and the new president-elect, Joe Biden of the Democratic Party, will enter the White House on Jan. 20 next year. It is widely expected in international public opinion that the new administration will return to the Obama administration’s Middle East policy, including support for the Iran nuclear deal.

Against this backdrop, the assassination may have been designed to provoke Iran and invite retaliation on a large scale, which would then give the Donald Trump administration, before its exit, a reason to roll the dice and go for a full-blown strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, together with Israel. Such a development would sabotage the incoming Biden administration’s attempt to improve relations and wreck Iran’s nuclear facilities to the maximum degree.

Exactly because of this possibility, it seems that rationality and patience have prevailed over fury and thirst for revenge in Tehran. So far, it has neither fired missiles at the American military base in Iraq, as it did in retaliation for the assassination of General Qasem Suleimani by American hellfire missiles earlier this year, nor launched any military operation against Israel.

General Hossein Dehghan, a military adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, took to Twitter and accused Israel of the murder: “In the last days of the political life of their ally,” he said, referring to Trump … Israel “seeks to intensify pressure on Iran and start a full-blown war.”

To avoid falling into an American or Israeli trap, Tehran sent an unnamed general to Baghdad in early November to warn all its allies in the Middle East against inflaming tension with the U.S. and to avoid giving the Trump administration the excuse to launch a last-minute military strike on Iran.

Killing a top nuclear scientist is like rubbing salt into Iran’s unhealed wounds. Although anger might be suppressed for the time being, the Iranians now will remember another blood debt on top of the assassination of Suleimani at the beginning of this year. Whether they will seek revenge is in little doubt. It’s more just a question of timing. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that Iran would respond “at the proper time.”

While Iran has not yet launched any military strike, a response has been given by way of strengthened nuclear research and development. On Dec. 2, Iran’s parliament passed a bill mandating increased uranium enrichment to speed up the country’s nuclear program. The bill was designed to serve three purposes. First, for those behind the assassination it was a message that Iran will never give in or be intimidated. Second, for the angry Iranian people, it was an announcement that the country’s nuclear program will gain momentum, not slow down. Third, it serves as a bargaining chip in future dealings with the Biden administration.

In contrast to Iran’s forbearance, Israeli anxiety stands out sharply. Over the past four years, the U.S. and Israel have found a high degree of agreement on containing Iran and U.S. expressions of support — and even connivance with Israel — has been the most prominent in American history. As a result, Israel’s relations with the U.S. have never been better. No wonder Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Trump.

But all good things must end. With the incoming Biden administration reviving Obama’s diplomatic team and the U.S. poised to return to the Iranian nuclear deal, Israel has again sensed an approaching American detachment and an imminent Iranian nuclear threat.

The assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist at this critical moment has taken all parties into a hunting ground where the guns are all loaded. When will the shooting start? It’s about the gunmen’s patience (or absence of it) and the target lock.

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