Erbil, Kurdish region of northern Iraq – The assassination of high-ranking Iranian nuclear physicist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh near Tehran on Friday has sent a familiar tremor through the region.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attack. But from Beirut to Baghdad, Iran and its proxies have pointed the finger at Israel and the United States – prompting some regional watchers to foresee another escalation in violence in Iraq.
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In a statement, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s spokesman urged for “restraint and the need to avoid any actions that could lead to an escalation of tensions in the region”.
But Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei called for the killers to be brought to justice, and a sense of discomfort has settled over some Iraqis.
The killing of one of Iran’s towering figures felt reminiscent of the assassination of top Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in January.
The killing of Soleimani by a US air strike paved the path towards an uptick in violence between American troops and Iran-backed armed groups, like Kataib Hezbollah.
The group released a statement following the killing of Fakhrizadeh calling for revenge against the “Zionist-American-Saudi axis’ criminal record. The cost of their crimes must be high.”
Senior Iraq Analyst at the International Crisis Group Lahib Higel told Al Jazeera that: “It is possible that we will see retaliation in Iraq by Iran-linked groups.”
However, she said this month’s US presidential election – in which incumbent Donald Trump was beaten by Joe Biden – has complicated the situation.
“On the one hand Iran and its affiliates in Iraq want to lay low until the [President] Trump team leaves office in January, but on the other hand it is unlikely that the Iranians won’t answer before that time,” she said.
She said an Iranian response in Iraq would likely “take on similar forms as what we have seen previously, rocket attacks on the green zone or Ain al-Asad airbase, targeting logistics convoys”.
“But there are other theatres in the region where this could happen as well.”
Henry Rome, a senior analyst at geopolitical risk firm Eurasia Group, said that Iran will likely be restrained in its initial response to the killing of Fakhrizadeh.
“While Iranian officials debate the wisdom of immediate diplomacy with the incoming Biden administration, there is probably little interest in taking steps that would foreclose this path, like an attack on US forces or personnel,” he said in a statement released by Eurasia Group.
But a restrained initial response by Iran does not rule out a larger eventual retaliation.
“They may well be planning something that is a slow burner,” Michael Stephens, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, told Al Jazeera.
But even if they do, “it’s very difficult to do that outside of what they’ve already been doing,” said Stephens, referring to rocket attacks by armed groups on US targets.
Tamer Badawi, an associate with the Middle East Directions Programme at the European University Institute, told Al Jazeera that any Iranian-linked response in Iraq could be limited by the agreement in October by Iran-backed armed groups to temporarily halt attacks on American facilities, on condition that the US troops withdrew from Iraq.
“It is a challenge for Iran in Iraq to retaliate with a very clear message, while at the same time maintaining a fragile truce declared by paramilitaries in October not to target the US embassy and troops,” he said.