By Ali Fathollah-Nejad
The November presidential election victory of Joe Biden against the incumbent Donald Trump raised alarm bells within the anti-Iran front in the Middle East – most notably Israel and Saudi Arabia. They reckon that the days of Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Iran are numbered, and fear that President-elect Biden will follow through on his campaign promise to return the USA to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or the Iran nuclear deal), which will include easing sanctions on Iran in exchange for the latter’s return to the limits and restraints imposed by the JCPOA on its nuclear programme.
With just over a month left for the Trump administration, there has been a sense of urgency among Iran’s foes not only to sustain but to increase the pressure on Tehran in this period, by creating new facts that the Biden administration would not be able to ignore, and which will complicate any smooth transition to a new US Iran policy. These new facts could be achieved through new sanctions on Iran, or through other means, such as covert operations against Iran’s nuclear programme intended to provoke an Iranian reaction. This last possibility reportedly featured prominently in a November visit to the region by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, especially in his meetings with Israeli, Saudi and UAE leaders. Given these attempts at increasing agitation by the anti-Iran front, as well as Trump’s unpredictability, concerns were raised in Tehran. Iran’s military leadership has, as expected and in its usual manner, reacted with a language of defiance and counter-threats.
The 27 November assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, near Tehran has, in a dramatic manner, given credence to those Iranian worries, while confirming the estimates that, rather than overt operations by the anti-Iran front, we are likely to witness covert ones in the period before Biden’s 20 January inauguration. While there is a strong likelihood that Israel was behind the assassination (since it had carried out such targeted killings against Iranian nuclear scientists in the past – between 2010 and 2012, in particular, and since Israel viewed Fakhrizadeh as a high-value target), there has been the usual ‘neither admit nor deny’ stance by Israel. And it is highly probable that the Trump administration was informed about, and approved of, the assassination.
Just over a week before the assassination, General Esmail Ghaani, the head of the Qods Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), had already put its allies and proxies in the region, especially in Iraq, on high alert, and had called on them to avoid provoking tensions with the USA. In this vein, the leader of the Iran-backed Lebanese Hiizbullah, Hassan Nasrallah, told his followers and allies in a speech early November, ‘All of us…should be on high alert in these next two months so that they pass peacefully.’ There is, clearly, little Iranian appetite for escalation in this US transitional period that is marked by fragility and uncertainty because of the unpredictable nature of the present occupant of the White House. Tehran does not want to alienate the incoming Biden administration – upon which the Iranian regime, despite rhetoric to the contrary by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, has pinned much hope for the easing of the extremely onerous sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic, and thus reduce Biden’s willingness for compromise and sanctions relief.
The question is whether Trump might be willing – especially if pushed by Israel’s Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu – to satisfy his regional darlings by escalating actions against Iran in exchange for their and their American allies’ support for a possible 2024 presidential run. However, Trump’s options on the ground are limited, as US casualties may cost him more than any benefit he might accrue.
Therefore, if there is to be any further escalation from the anti-Iran front, it would involve covert drone attacks, cyber warfare and assassinations targeting Iran’s nuclear and military installations inside and outside the country (such as in Iraq or Syria). If such escalation occurs in this transitional period, the Iranians may respond with similar instruments and tactics, while ensuring that these will not lead to a large-scale conflagration, an outcome that Tehran fears and considers too costly in view of future diplomacy.
Rather than to set back Iran’s nuclear programme, the assassination of Fakhrizadeh was primarily aimed to provoke an Iranian reaction that might serve as a basis for a powerful, probably military, response by Israel and/or the USA, which could prove extremely costly for Tehran. Following this logic, Netanyahu may opt for similar further covert ops while Trump is still president, knowing that the outgoing US president will likely support him to further provoke Iran into (over-)reacting – a calculation that Iranian security officials are very aware of. Netanyahu may be preparing to push the USA to attack Iran’s nuclear infrastructure (partly underground or in mountains) with bunker busters, suspecting that Biden’s approach will be too ‘soft’ (for him and the rest of the anti-Iran bloc) on Iran’s nuclear programme.
Against this backdrop, there are several low-risk scenarios that Iran might opt for – with that of inaction in the transition period being, arguably, most likely. Any strong or proportional retaliation from Iran – by, for example, causing Israeli or American deaths – would run the risk of: 1) provoking an Israeli and/or USA military response that could result in the kind of military escalation that Tehran fears; 2) alienating the incoming Biden administration, thus undermining its willingness for concessions (easing of sanctions) that are desperately needed by the Iranian leadership; and 3) alienating European partners and reducing their willingness to help ease the pressure on Iran during Biden’s presidency. Based on this understanding, below are six possible scenarios for an Iranian response.
Scenario 1: Postponing retaliation until a less costly time
Iranian official reactions to the Fakhrizadeh killing included the usual defiance and counter-threats by the IRGC, as well as the well-worn mantra that the murder was a display of how desperate Iran’s foes are. It is probable that Iran will warn that it will forcefully retaliate at a time and place of its choosing, thus postponing any possible response to a time when the move may be less risky – within a different political and geopolitical environment. This scenario was hinted at by Esmail Kowsari, advisor to the IRGC commander-in-chief, who said that Tehran would not deal with the assassination ‘in an impulsive way’, but ‘we will never forget it’. He added that the ‘time, place and type’ of the promised retaliation was yet to be determined.
Scenario 2: Stepping up the nuclear programme
Scenario 1 is likely to be accompanied by a marked stepping up of Iran’s nuclear programme in ways that are easily reversible in order to allow an easing of tensions between Tehran and the Biden administration when appropriate. Already, on 1 December, the Iranian Parliament – controlled by the administration’s conservative opponents – passed (with a 251 majority) a bill called Strategic Action to Lift Sanctions. It obliges the Rouhani administration to annually produce 120 kg of 20% enriched uranium (which approaches weapons-grade), stop the implementation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty’s Additional Protocol (that enables unannounced inspections in declared nuclear facilities) if western JCPOA signatories do not re-establish Iran’s access to international banking and oil markets within two months’, and to build a new heavy-water reactor. The bill became law after the Guardian Council – a body also controlled by hardliners – ratified it on 2 December. Initially, the motion was passed by the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission and by its speaker, Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf.
This offensive by the legislative branch can be seen as: 1) a rather low-risk response to the Fakhrizadeh killing, and 2) as a push by hardliners to lessen the chances of a diplomatic breakthrough by the Rouhani administration, a foe of the hardliner-controlled Parliament. In any case, these measures are first and foremost intended to increase Iran’s bargaining leverage in future talks with the USA – a strategy Iran feels had worked successfully in the period preceding the JCPOA negotiations, when Iran’s advanced nuclear programme could be bargained for the Obama administration dropping the ‘zero-enrichment’ demand that had been put forward to Tehran.
However, it is not clear whether the bill’s provisions (in part or in total) will actually be implemented given the power structure in the Islamic Republic of Iran. In this vein, Rouhani administration spokesman Ali Rabiei said: ‘The government believes that, under the constitution, the nuclear accord and the nuclear programme […] are under the jurisdiction of the Supreme National Security Council […] and parliament cannot deal with this by itself.’ Indeed, the nuclear file has now been passed from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) to the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), where it had previously been located. Although a sign of the conservative camp’s ambition to control the nuclear file and possible negotiations around it, the SNSC also includes representatives from other political establishment factions, and it decides on key national security and foreign policy issues in a consensual manner, with Khamenei having an extraordinarily important say.
Iran tried to capitalise on Fakhrizadeh’s extrajudicial killing diplomatically and politically by trying to garner support among some European states, thereby portraying itself as the victim of unlawful practices while emphasising that it abides by international law (as Tehran argued after the USA withdrawal from the JCPOA). The EU has already condemned ‘this criminal act’, but with Iran’s execution of prominent dissident journalist Rouhollah Zam, Tehran’s relations with Europe have been strained.
Scenario 3: A (symbolic) cyber-attack
Another possible retaliatory attack is an Iranian cyber-attack on Israeli entities. However, it is not clear whether Iran could be successful in such an endeavour since Israel has superiority in this field, and, due to that superiority, Iran runs the risk of its nuclear and ballistic missile infrastructures becoming the targets of more damaging cyber-sabotage responses by Israel.
Scenario 4: A symbolic military reaction for domestic consumption
Interestingly, Khamenei’s wording of Iran’s contemplated retaliation to the Fakhrizadeh assassination as seeking ‘definitive punishment’ (mojâzât-e qat’i) was much milder than the ‘hard revenge’ (enteqâm-e sakht) he vowed after the January assassination of Qods force head, General Qassem Soleimani. That ‘hard revenge’ was merely a show of force with ballistic missiles launched at an Iraqi base housing US troops, and calculated to produce zero American deaths. The move was widely seen as being crafted to avoid a full-scale military escalation with the USA that could cost the Iranian regime’s survival.
Such a symbolic retaliation to satisfy domestic and regional proxies’ calls for revenge, albeit on a smaller scale than that demanded, could also play out in the Fakhrizadeh case, due to Iranian fears over a military escalation with Israel and the USA that could be severely damaging.
Scenario 5: Iranian or Iran-allied military responses against Israeli or US interests with no casualties
This mid-level risky scenario would not lead to Israeli or US casualties. It would involve, for example, a Hizbullah attack against Israel, or Iranian drones or missiles launched into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Although this may lead to a further escalation by the anti-Iran front, the latter’s reaction would have to be proportionate for it to be wholly acceptable to much of the international community.
Scenario 6: Iranian response with casualties
This would be similar to Scenario 4, but would lead, instead, to casualties. The quantity and quality of the casualties may define the manner and scope of the anti-Iran front’s retaliation, given international opinion. However, given that front’s sense of urgency, they may opt to act in disregard of international public and political opinion. This scenario is, thus, a very risky one for Iran since it could trigger an escalation that could undermine any chance of Iran seeing sanctions eased next year. The result of that would be a destroyed Iranian economy, and possible destabilisation of the regime.
Dr Ali Fathollah-Nejad is a Non-resident Senior Research Fellow at the Afro-Middle East Centre, and a former Iran expert at the Brookings Institution in Doha (BDC) and the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP)
14 December 2020