Upon receiving the news of the assassination of Iran's top nuclear scientist, Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who is known as the ‘black box’ of the nuclear program, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei found himself in the same position he was in when he heard the news of the killing of the Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani, despite the differences between the two men.
Soleimani was the closest to the Supreme Leader's heart and the biggest guardian of Iran’s aspirations to export its revolution to the region. There are those who believe that, just like Iran pinned its revolutionary hopes on Soleimani, Fakhrizadeh was meant to serve Iran’s nuclear aspirations.
These two events are similar, the first was ordered by Donald Trump, and the second is believed to have been ordered by Benjamin Netanyahu, taking advantage of the last couple of weeks that separate us from a Biden presidency as Trump stokes the fading embers of his campaign.
In our part of the region, we are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating catastrophic repercussions for the events that take place around us. Our region seems to feed on a never-ending spiral of hostility and turmoil, all the while pretending to seek peace.
In a region already rife with tensions, instability, and seemingly endless conflicts, we seem to never learn from our bloody mistakes and long history of violence.
Whilst endeavoring to avoid exaggeration, we must remember that no one is irreplaceable no matter how brilliant.
Any entity, no matter how sensitive, can be rebuilt. However, the hits to the image of a regime, leaders, or the powers that pull its strings are much harder to recover from. In this regard, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Iran is heading to the end of the current year with two significant blows.
The first being the assassination of Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad by the Americans, especially since Soleimani was portrayed as the Guevara of the Iranian revolution after spearheading Iran's Middle East operations that had major implications for many countries in the region.
It is safe to assume that Tehran has not been able to respond in kind to these hits, which is why we repeatedly heard Iranians use the phrase “strategic patience” as well as claiming that revenge will be taken “at the right time and place.”
It is highly likely that Iran had ruled out the possibility of an American president making the decision to kill Soleimani. Assassinating him is not the same as the killing of Osama bin Laden or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Perhaps Iran thought that Donald Trump himself, as unpredictable as he is, would not dare to cross this “red line” of targeting Iran’s widely celebrated military commander.
The systematic targeting of Americans in Iraq cannot be deemed tantamount to the actions taken by the US, and many believe that they are not enough to wash away the blow that Iran had taken. Trump did not stop there, he continued to adopt his ‘maximum pressure’ strategy on Iran, inflicting significant damage to its economy.
As part of Trump’s ongoing provocation tactics towards Iran, he always made sure to present Iran with a difficult choice, either take more losses or agree to engage in a comprehensive and unmatched confrontation.
The fact that Iran could not predict the lengths Trump would go to served as a deterrent that prevented Tehran and its allies from retaliating to the killing of Soleimani. In fact, the first strike was the US’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement, which had constituted a historic opportunity for Iran, especially when the US agreed to dismiss the sanctions against it, in exchange for enforcing nuclear restrictions, while turning a blind eye to its attacks in the region and its ballistic arsenal.
Iran and the United States have been in a long-standing feud ever since the time of the Khomeinist revolution. However, this feud seems to have taken an unprecedented turn in the Trump era. It would seem that all the lines between both sides have been blurred.
The US was not the only one to cross lines, in fact, all hostile actions taken by Iran starting with holding Americans hostage in their embassy in Tehran, bombing the US Marine headquarters in Beirut, and kidnapping hostages, could also be construed as crossing major red lines imposed by international laws, even in the event of ongoing clashes.
This is not the first time that Israel has targeted a nuclear scientist on Iranian soil. In fact, Israel has previously carried out similar actions in the last decade. What makes this particular assassination operation different has to do with the fact that Netanyahu himself has mentioned this scientist’s name before the entire world in the context of revealing the contents of certain nuclear-related documents that the Mossad stole from Iran.
This emphasized the fact that Iran failed to provide this prominent scientist with sufficient protection.
Another thing that makes this assassination much more serious has to do with the fact that it revealed the scale of the Israeli infiltration on Iranian soil. An attack of this magnitude requires intricate planning, inside information, supply of weapons and explosives, as well as safe passage in and out of the country, which means that many were complicit in this operation.
Finally, one could deduce that the timing of this attack seems very curious, the attack was carried out weeks before the end of Trump's term, which means that the Biden administration may find itself faced with new complications that might stand in the way of the US returning to the nuclear deal.
Fakhrizadeh’s assassination in conjunction with the assassination of senior al-Qaeda operative Abu Mohammed al-Masri, in Tehran in particular, confirms the previous accusations leveled against the Iranian regime. It also comes at a time when Israel has openly declared war on the Iranian positioning in Syria. This war has received considerable support from both the American and Russian sides.
Despite the repeated Israeli attacks, Tehran was unable to organize a response of the same magnitude, neither through its Syrian front nor through the Lebanese front, which suggests an attempt to impose new rules of engagement and deterrence are in the process of being established.
Experts say that Russia is not willing to support an Iranian missile response from Syrian territory. They also say that the Syrian army is unlikely to be able to bear the consequences of launching such an attack from Syrian territory. Some experts also note that the complete collapse that Lebanon is currently undergoing prevents Hezbollah from organizing a large-scale retaliation from Lebanon.
On top of all this, this last step came after a major shift in the region’s politics, namely the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain on the basis of shared concern over Iranian policies. This means that Iran’s comprehensive encirclement plans of the prominent countries in the region that was launched years ago are now standing on shaky grounds.
With the Middle East aflame with so many raging crises, many red lines are being crossed with no real attempts for de-escalation. Fears continue to mount as countries fall into further turmoil with the increase in civil wars, sectarian hostility, and foreign intervention.
We are currently witnessing unprecedented infringements being committed by all sides and red lines being undermined whether through raids or assassinations, so it is only natural for countries to be on the fence hoping not to be caught in the crossfire as tensions continue to escalate.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.