Iran weighs its options for taking revenge for the assassination of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.
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 in pointing the blame for Fakhrizadeh’s assassination at Israel, a key United States 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 killing of Fakhrizadeh.
The United Nations and European countries have urged restraint as tensions are spiking before outgoing US President Donald Trump in January 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 believes Israel will ultimately not gain anything by 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 in reference 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 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,”.
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”.