Tehran, Iran – The Iranian authorities have 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, head of the research and innovation organisation in Iran’s defence ministry, had long been suspected by Western and Israeli intelligence of leading the nation’s military nuclear programme until it was disbanded in 2003.
Iran has not minced words, pointing the the finger of blame for Fakhrizadeh’s assassination at Israel, a key US ally that 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 assassination.
The UN and European countries have urged restraint as tensions spike before January, when outgoing US President Donald Trump 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”.
According to Diako Hosseini, a senior researcher with the Center for Strategic Studies, the research arm of the Iranian president’s office, 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 said Israel would not gain anything from this assassination because Iran’s nuclear programme is no longer dependent on individuals, having a firm structure and a large number of young scientists in place.
“Netanyahu made Israel more unsafe with this assassination,” he said, referring 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.”
About a decade ago, several Iranian nuclear scientists were assassinated in attacks that Israel has long been suspected of carrying out.
Tehran has long maintained that 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 told Al Jazeera.
According to Parsi, a debate over how Iran should react is continuing among the Iranian authorities.
On one hand, he said, Rouhani announced publicly earlier today that Iran will not fall for Israel’s trap by responding carelessly.
On the other hand, “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, although the Republican president retweeted Israeli writer Yossi Melman, who said the scientist’s death “is a major psychological and professional blow for Iran”.
Target of retaliation
Iran’s promise of “harsh revenge” for Fakhrizadeh echoed the promise made after top general Qassem Soleimani, one of the most powerful men in Iran, was assassinated by a US drone strike in Baghdad, Iraq, in early January.
Days after the strike ordered by Trump, 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.
Iranian authorities have since said the true revenge for Soleimani’s assassination will be the full withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.
Iran may not respond to the assassination of Fakhrizadeh as it did to Soleimani’s killing as the conditions are different, said Abas Aslani, a senior research fellow at the Tehran-based Center for Middle East Strategic Studies.
No one has claimed responsibility for Fakhrizadeh’s assassination yet, he said, 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 told Al Jazeera.
But if Iran also finds the US complicit in the attack, he added, US interests in the region could be at risk.
According to Aslani, Iran’s response could even grow beyond Israel and the US, and possibly extend to some of their allies in the region, including several Arab states.
He said at least a part of Iran’s response will be military in nature, “but Iran will also look to get condemnations on the assassination 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, during which he visited Iranian rivals Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Ramping up pressure on Iran was a major stated purpose of the visits.
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 had no doubt that Israeli intelligence agency Mossad was behind Fakhrizadeh’s assassination and that Iran will respond to the killing.
“The meaning of this physical act of terror is that Mossad has once more shifted from an intelligence phase to an operational phase and naturally, like the previous round of assassinations on Iran’s nuclear scientists, the Islamic republic will also shift its activities to an operational phase in this covert war,” he told Al Jazeera.
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 an operational phase and retaliation,” he said.
He said Iran will decide the time and place, but the country’s revenge will be certain.
“And certainly the grounds for Iran’s response to the perpetrators of martyr Fakhrizadeh’s assassination will not be limited to the West Asia region,” Dalirian said.