In the wake of the killing of top Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s government is navigating tricky waters. Moderates like President Hassan Rouhani are cautious about retaliating, wary not to provoke a war with the US or Israel before President Trump leaves office. But Rouhani is under pressure from other factions who do not want to take Fakhrizadeh’s assassination laying down.
While Rouhani has vowed revenge for Fakhrizadeh, he seems to favor a measured response that would not provoke a broader conflict. “Our people are wiser than to fall in the trap of the Zionist regime,” Rouhani said on Saturday. “Iran will surely respond to the martyrdom of our scientist at the proper time.”
Despite no official claim of responsibility, it’s become clear that Israel was behind Fakhrizadeh’s death, an operation that could have also had US support. The incident further vindicates hardliners in Iran who were opposed to Rouhani’s move to enter negotiations with the US to reach the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The hardliners were first vindicated in 2018 when the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA by reimposing crippling sanctions on Iran. Since then, the administration has continued to ramp up its “maximum pressure” campaign that has strangled Iran’s economy and caused untold suffering in the country.
But the sanctions were not the only consequence Rouhani and other moderates faced for their decision to attempt diplomacy with Washington. The most significant US provocation towards Iran came early this year when the US assassinated Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad on January 3rd. Iran chose a measured response by firing missiles at a base housing US troops in Iraq, an attack the US had prior knowledge of.
Fast forward to last summer, when Iran was dealing with a string of mysterious explosions and fires in its industrial sites. At least one of those incidents was the result of Israeli sabotage. A July 2nd explosion at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility was credited to Israel by the usual channels, through leaks to the media and vague comments from Israeli officials.
Intelligence sources told The New York Times that Israel planted a bomb at Natanz that caused a fire, which set back Iran’s centrifuge program by months. Later in July, anonymous sources told Business Insider that Israel was trying to provoke Iran into a confrontation before the November US presidential election.
But Israel pursued its usual strategy of ambiguity during this time, not making it clear which incidents they were responsible for. “I don’t know which ones exactly and wouldn’t tell you anyway because the entire point is for the Iranians to feel considerable stress trying to decide what might have been our work,” a former Israeli defense official told the Insider.
Iran chose not to retaliate for the Natanz blast and decided to move centrifuges in the facility underground for security purposes. Both the US and Israel criticized Iran for the move, calling it a violation of the JCPOA.
The latest Israeli provocation against Iran came after a report said President Trump reviewed options to strike Iran’s nuclear facility at Natanz in response to further violations of the JCPOA. Israel handled this news by ramping up airstrikes against what it deems are Iranian-linked targets in Syria and leaking information to the press about how its military is preparing for war with Iran.
If killing Fakhrizadeh was not enough to provoke Iran, Iraqi sources told several media outlets that a commander from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was killed in a drone strike in Syria near the border with Iraq on Sunday. As of Monday night, Iran has yet to confirm or deny the story. If it is true, it was likely carried out by Israel or the US. Another brazen assassination of a high-level Iranian official would be hard for Iran to ignore.
On Sunday, the top commander of the IRGC said “a severe revenge and punishment” had been put on Iran’s agenda in the wake of Fakhrizadeh’s killing. On Monday, Iran’s defense minister warned that those responsible for the scientist’s death would face punishment during a speech at Fakhrizadeh’s funeral.
“The enemy knows full well that he cannot commit a crime without getting a response from the Iranian people. The martyr’s blood will be remembered forever and the enemy made a mistake with this assassination,” said Defense Minister Gen. Amir Hatami.
Besides provoking a war, one goal of Israel and the Iran hawks in Washington is to sabotage a future Biden administration’s plans to rejoin the JCPOA. Both Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif have said Iran is ready to comply with the JCPOA in exchange for sanctions relief once Biden comes in. But in the face of so many provocations, returning to diplomacy with the US might not be an easy sell to Iran’s hardliners.