The targeted killing of the prominent Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on the outskirts of Tehran Nov. 27 has heightened tensions between Tehran and its regional foes, particularly Israel. Tehran has attributed Fakhrizadeh’s assassination to Israel and has vowed retaliation. However, Tehran is unlikely to directly engage in any reprisal actions against Israel in the near to medium term. Instead, Tehran will almost certainly resort to cyberattacks, use of its proxies in Lebanon, Syria, and Palestinian Territories, and political assassinations of its enemies abroad. Fakhrizadeh’s assassination, which comes nearly a year after the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad in January, has definitely exposed Iranian defense forces’ vulnerabilities and has hurt their pride in failing to protect their most important scientist. This leaves Tehran with no choice but to engage in hostile rhetoric against Israel and the US.
Who Was Mohsen Fakhrizadeh and Why Was He Targeted?
Fakhrizadeh, who served as the head of the Research and Innovation Organization within the Ministry of Defense, spearheaded the AMAD Project from 1987 to 2003. A covert military operation, the project’s sole purpose was to develop advanced defense technologies, including nuclear weapons. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), AMAD ended in 2003. Nevertheless, Fakhrizadeh continued serving at Iran’s Ministry of Defense. Dubbed the father of Iran's nuclear program, he was to Iran’s nuclear ambitions what Maj. Gen. Soleimani was to Iran’s clandestine and special military operations.
Fakhrizadeh appears to have been killed largely due to the critical role he played in Iran’s nuclear program, which Tehran asserts is for peaceful purposes only. While there has as yet been no claim of responsibility for his assassination, those behind it likely seek to paralyze Iran’s nuclear program and deter its ambitions of pursuing a nuclear weapon. Fakhrizadeh’s killing may also be intended to discourage other prominent scientists in Iran from working for the government. The Israeli government is suspected of having killed at least four leading Iranian scientists between 2010 and 2012 in an attempt to slow down the country’s nuclear project.
Iran’s Reaction and Next Steps
The killing has greatly angered and humiliated the Iranian leadership and defense forces, particularly the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which is responsible for protecting the country’s prominent political figures and leaders. The pressure to exact revenge, therefore, is high. Kayhan’s newspaper, which is arguably the most conservative news outlet in the country, has called on the government to target the Israeli port city of Haifa and cause heavy human casualties. The article in the paper argues that such a retaliatory strike will definitely lead to deterrence, because the US and Israel are not prepared to go to war and engage in a military confrontation with Tehran.
President Rouhani’s response has been much more measured. Rouhani has stated that Iran will respond in a proper time. The Iranian government’s top priority, however, is to find a way to put an end to the US economic sanctions, which have nearly crippled the nation’s economy. The Iranian government has stated that it will begin to fully comply with the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) - more commonly known as the "Iran nuclear deal" - under President-elect Joe Biden's Administration if Washington were to end the sanctions. Retaliating directly against a close ally of the US, such as Israel, would greatly endanger that plan.
Why is Iran Highly Unlikely to Respond Directly to Fakhrizadeh’s Killing?
The Iranian government has preferred to operate in the shadows and engage its enemies and geopolitical rivals indirectly and via its proxies. This affords Iran plausible deniability and allows it to prevent a direct military confrontation, which could further damage its economy and raise the prospect of social and political unrest at home. Tehran directly responded to the killing of Soleimani in January because the US claimed responsibility for the attack and because of the general’s public stature and station in Iran. Iran also could not possibly let Soleimani’s killing go unanswered as it would have seriously damaged its credibility with its allies throughout the Middle East and the world.
Fakhrizadeh’s case is different. While the incident has all the hallmarks of an Israeli attack, the Iranian leadership cannot definitively blame Israel for the incident without conducting a thorough investigation, which could take at least several weeks. This provides authorities with an excuse to not act immediately. Rouhani has further stated that the assassination demonstrates that Iran’s enemies are passing through anxious weeks and that they feel their pressure era is ending and the global conditions are changing, alluding to the end of the Trump Administration and potentially the end of the US economic sanctions on Iran. Rouhani and other Iranian leaders are hoping to salvage the nuclear deal, and they believe the attack was carried out to trigger a reaction from Iran that would prompt a cycle of violence in the region and complicate efforts at reviving the nuclear deal.
Reports also indicate that the new Quds Commander – Esmail Qa’ani – paid a secret visit to Lebanon Nov. 30 in which he urged Tehran’s Shi’a militant group ally, Hizballah, not to provoke Israel between the change of government in the US. Iranian leadership also appears to believe in the popular expression that revenge is a dish best served cold. Hossein Dehghan – a senior military adviser to the Supreme Leader – said: “The night is long, and we are awake. We will come down like thunder on the heads of those responsible for the murder of this martyr and make them regret it.” Conservatives and hardliners in the Iranian Parliament, meanwhile, have urged the government to take immediate and punitive action and revive the country’s nuclear industry.
Origins of Tensions between the US and Its Allies and Iran
Tensions between Washington and Tehran have been elevated since May 2018, when US President Donald J. Trump unilaterally pulled the US out of the JCPOA. The previous US administration signed the nuclear deal with Iran and China, France, Germany, Russia, and the UK in July 2015. Under the agreement, Iran was required to restrict its nuclear program significantly and allow international inspectors broad access to its nuclear facilities in exchange for sanctions relief. Trump regularly criticized the agreement and complained that it did not address Iran's regional aggression or its ballistic missile program. The Iranian government and the other JCPOA signatories have been negotiating to maintain parts of the agreement, but these talks have yet to succeed.
Despite the efforts of the EU3 – as France, Germany, and the UK are known – to defuse tensions, both the US and Iran have engaged in actions that increased uncertainty in the Persian Gulf and raised serious concerns about the possibility of a military conflict. Iran retaliated against the US' April 2019 designation of the IRGC as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) by branding the US Central Command (CENTCOM) – primarily responsible for the readiness and deployment of troops in the Middle East – a terrorist entity and naming the US government a sponsor of terror in the region. Since the IRGC’s designation, the US also has imposed sanctions on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and dozens of other prominent leaders and organizations.
The September 2019 attacks against the Abqaiq and Khurais Aramco oil installations in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province and the killing of Soleimani in January 2020 marked an escalation in tensions between Washington and Riyadh, and Tehran. While the Saudis did not name the perpetrators of the attacks against the Aramco facilities, Washington has directly blamed Tehran for them. In an attempt to thwart Iranian influence in Damascus, Israel has increased its airstrikes against Iranian military positions in Syria and even began a campaign of airstrikes against the Shi'a Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) in Iraq. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced in November 2019 that Iran was planning further attacks in the Middle East. Netanyahu's statement came after CENTCOM Commander, Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, stated in Manama that the additional deployment of 14,000 US soldiers and weaponry, mostly to Saudi Arabia, may have deterred Tehran from attacking US targets, but that Iran may still target other Gulf countries. McKenzie and Netanyahu's statements may be echoing a report by the US Defense Intelligence Agency that Iran will continue to deploy an increasing number of more accurate and lethal ballistic missiles and engage in developing additional surface-to-surface cruise missiles.
Escalatory Incidents and Likelihood of Additional Events
Tensions have been particularly elevated following a series of maritime incidents in the Persian Gulf from July 2019, when a series of tit-for-tat oil tanker seizures took place between the UK and Iran. In early August 2019, the US formed a maritime coalition with Albania, Australia, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the UK to ensure safe passage through the Strait of Hormuz. Additional vessel seizures cannot be ruled out.
Despite the escalatory incidents, a direct military confrontation appears unlikely in the coming months. The US and Iran have, however, identified “red lines.” Washington has stated any attacks against its troops in Iraq will trigger a major military response, while Tehran said that any incursion into its territory would bring about a “swift response.” The security situation could rapidly deteriorate if either country crosses these established red lines.
Iran has an array of options to respond to the US and its allies. Missiles, unconventional warfare, and cyber prowess constitute the core of Iranian military capabilities and the country will most likely use these to respond to Fakhrizadeh’s killing. In the absence of a modern air force, Iran has been developing ballistic missiles to dissuade its regional enemies - Israel and Saudi Arabia - and the US from launching attacks against it. Iran has the largest missile arsenal in the Middle East, with a significant inventory of close-range, short-range, and medium-range ballistic missiles, with a distance of 2,000 km (1,243 miles). Additionally, Iran operates coastal defense cruise missiles along its southern coast that can strike military or commercial ships up to 300 km (186 miles) away. They also possess sophisticated armed drones.
Iran's asymmetric warfare capabilities are used to support the country's regional allies and to retaliate against Iran's enemies. Iran can employ the Shi'a militias it has cultivated in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and in Lebanon. Given Iran's weaknesses in its conventional forces, it has heavily relied on its proxies to advance its national interests and to maintain plausible deniability.
The other core military capability of Iran is its cyberwarfare capabilities. Since 2009, Iran has invested significant resources to develop capabilities for propaganda, intelligence exploitation, and disruption purposes. Cyber operations are low-cost, enabling the country to collect information and to retaliate against its adversaries. Iranian cyber assailants regularly employ phishing and defacing campaigns against businesses, defense companies, and energy and oil corporations.
Several US government officials stated in 2018 that Iran had “laid the groundwork” for widespread cyberattacks against US and European infrastructure. Iran has the capability to enable denial-of-service attacks against numerous electrical grids, water plants, and private corporations across the US, Europe, and the Middle East. Iran is suspected of having carried out several cyberattacks against Saudi companies and government agencies in recent years. Even more significant is that Iran has markedly improved its cyber capabilities to the point that they are now on par with Russian and Chinese capabilities. In January 2020, cyberactors claiming to be from Iran hacked and defaced the US Federal Depository Library Program's website. Similar attacks against US defense companies and government agencies remain likely.
Iran may also retaliate against oil tankers and vessels in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz, which will result in maritime disruptions. Rouhani has said that if Iran is not allowed to export oil through the Strait of Hormuz, then no other country will be. The Strait of Hormuz is a crucial waterway between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman and is the world's busiest maritime oil traffic route; some 90 percent of Gulf countries' oil exports transit the strait. While Iran likely does not have the means to close the strait entirely, it can harass and attack civilian commercial vessels, which will severely impact maritime operations in the Persian Gulf and contribute to a significant increase in global energy prices.
Given the heightened tensions, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs has instructed the nation's diplomatic missions abroad to boost security protocols and remain on high alert as of Nov. 30 due to concerns over the potential for Iranian retaliation in response to the Nov. 27 killing. The advisory specifically calls on Israel's consulates and embassies to maintain the highest possible level of preparedness and vigilance for any unusual activity in the vicinity of the missions, at the homes of employees and their families, and at Jewish and Israeli community centers. Israeli authorities will also likely maintain a heightened security presence domestically as a safeguard against possible attacks by pro-Iranian elements and Shi'a militias operating out of the region.
The Consequences of War with Iran
Neither the US nor Iran wants to escalate tensions to the point of direct war. The US' approach to Iran under President Trump’s Administration has been a “policy of maximum pressure,” applied through the imposition of economic sanctions and efforts to reduce Iranian oil exports to zero. A military confrontation between the two countries, if it were to occur, will likely translate into maritime disruptions in the Persian Gulf and will bring about severe interruptions to business operations in Gulf countries and beyond.
In recent decades, Iran has heavily invested in militias and militant groups in several Arab countries. Iran has built an extensive network of proxy groups that are likely to assist Tehran in the event of war with the US. Iran has the support of several Shi'a groups in Iraq, including the PMUs. In Lebanon, Iran has trained and armed Hizballah, which has warred with the US-allied Israel in the past. In Yemen, Iran's support of the Al-Houthi rebel group – while confined to logistical support – has been vital in the rebel group improving its drone and missile capabilities. In Syria, Iran's support of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has been critical in keeping Syria-based rebel and militant groups in check. These regional proxies remain loyal to Iran and will likely not hesitate to attack US personnel and allies in the region in the event of a military confrontation. Additionally, Iran will likely attack the assets of any Middle Eastern country that allows the use of its territory for military action against Tehran.
While Israel is unlikely to engage in any overt military action against Iran, particularly without the direct support of Washington, Israel will continue targeting Iran's network of militant partners and proxies throughout the region and inside Iran. On Nov. 12, 2019, Israeli strikes in the Gaza Strip killed Baha Abu al-Ata, who served as the commander of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) al-Quds Brigade. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) deemed al-Ata responsible for dozens of rocket attacks into southern Israeli communities; Israeli authorities stated that al-Ata – working on instructions from Iran – was planning additional attacks against Israeli military and civilian targets.
The IDF regularly targets military installations in Damascus that are home to Iran's Quds Force and Hizballah fighters. Since 2017, the IDF has launched hundreds of preemptive strikes in Syria, targeting suspected Hizballah and Iranian-backed fighters, weapons caches, and supply convoys, primarily in the southwestern governorates. Israel will continue to act against Iranian military assets in Syria over the coming weeks and months.
Tensions will likely persist between the US and its allies, particularly Israel and Saudi Arabia, and Iran; however, the possibility of a direct military confrontation, absent a major incident or attack in the Persian Gulf against US commercial interests or military personnel, is unlikely in the coming weeks and months. The US and its European and Middle Eastern allies could deploy further defense capabilities to the Persian Gulf to offset Iranian threats. The US and its allies may also begin naval escorts of commercial vessels traveling through the Strait of Hormuz to ensure freedom of navigation in the area. Shipping and maritime transport through the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, and Gulf of Oman is unlikely to be affected at present and at least within the early months of 2021, subject to the absence of a significant escalation. The security environment could rapidly deteriorate if similar incidents increase. Additional drone and missile attacks against key Saudi infrastructure – including oil and military facilities – remain possible in the near to medium term. Israel will continue to target Iranian proxies throughout the region, including in Iraq and Syria, through early 2021.
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