After the murder of a nuclear physicist: the sabers rattle in the Middle East

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From Tal Leder, Tel Aviv

Iranian hardliners want retaliation for the murder of nuclear researcher Fakhrizadeh. But revenge also carries risks: It could provoke Israel to counterattack and endanger the renegotiations with the US on the nuclear deal.

The killer squad struck in broad daylight: some of the assassins jumped out of a parked car, others came to their aid on motorcycles. Three bullets hit the leading Iranian nuclear researcher Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who fell bleeding from the car to the ground. Doctors in a Tehran hospital were no longer able to save the scientist, who is known as the “father of the Iranian nuclear program”.

A few weeks before the end of US President Donald Trump’s term in office, the situation in the Middle East is tense. With the assassination of Fakhrizadeh, the conflict between Iran and its opponents threatens to worsen. The mullahs blame Israel for its death. The 59-year-old was most recently head of the research and technological innovation department in the Iranian Ministry of Defense. Hardliners are now calling for retaliation, but Iran could pay a high price for that.

“It is unlikely that Tehran will react militarily in the short term, but that does not mean that the assassination will go unanswered,” said Shlomo Yariv, a former counter-terrorism adviser to the Israeli Defense Ministry. “The many acts of sabotage on the Iranian nuclear program damaged the image of the regime.”

When the military leader Ghassem Soleimani, who is venerated by many compatriots, was eliminated by a US drone attack earlier this year, Iran attacked US bases in western Iraq with ballistic missiles. However, according to Yariv, the significance of that attack is to be rated higher than the killing of the atomic physicist. Even if he had connections with the Ayatollahs. “Iran will investigate the background of the murder very carefully,” says the security expert. “They know that the political dimension of this assassination attempt is something that Israel is also aiming at: to escalate tensions before the end of the Trump era to drag Iran and the US into a more serious conflict. This would pave the way for diplomacy make the next US administration difficult. ”

Israel wages “war between wars”

Israel is prepared for Iranian threats. Security measures have also been increased for Jewish and Israeli institutions abroad. While intelligence circles believe war is unlikely, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) on the country’s northern border are prepared for any scenario. Israel is particularly active on the Golan Heights, where Iran is trying to establish itself militarily on the Syrian side in order to open another front against the Jewish state. To prevent this, Israel has been waging a “war between the wars” for over a decade. The primary goal of their mostly covert military actions is to weaken Iran and its representatives through targeted attacks. The deterrent balance should be maintained.

“Despite Iranian threats, we are continuing to pursue our tasks and goals,” says Captain Ronen Eckstein from the North Command. “We will continue to take decisive action against the military expansion of Iran in Syria and are prepared for any kind of aggression.” On the “Blue Line” that separates Israel and Lebanon, the IDF has been on high alert since last summer. After an Israeli air strike in Syria killed a Hezbollah member, preparations are also made for a possible attack by the Iran-backed militia.

“Tehran knows that any aggression against us leads to a counterattack,” explains the officer. “A response in the form of a border fence incident or even a rocket launch on IDF positions could endanger their terrorist infrastructure.” However, according to IDF sources, Hezbollah is not currently seeking war and recently stated that retaliation was in the hands of Tehran.

Lebanon is about to collapse

Even if Hezbollah, as the extended arm of Iran, can hit any place in Israel with its 150,000 rockets, they know about the difficult situation in Lebanon. This is on the verge of collapse due to economic and political chaos, Covid-19 and the damage from the huge explosion in the port of Beirut.

Despite the rattling of sabers in the Persian Gulf and calls for retaliation, it is not yet clear to what extent the murder of the nuclear physicist will affect the Iranian nuclear program. The attacks on numerous scientists and cyber attacks on the nuclear facility in Natanz only set the mullahs’ nuclear ambitions back for a short time. The murder of Fakhrizadeh could hit Iran harder. According to the Israeli secret service Mossad, the physicist is said to have been responsible for the “Amad” project, an allegedly current, covert research project in Iran aimed at developing a functioning nuclear warhead.

“The attack confronts Tehran with demands from the hardliners for retaliation or the possibility of trying a fresh start with US President-elect Joseph Biden,” said journalist Ron Ben-Yishai recently on Israeli television. Biden had announced that he would resume the 2015 nuclear deal, from which the outgoing President Trump resigned in 2018. “An Iranian attack with deaths in Israel would force Biden to uphold the crippling sanctions of his predecessor against Tehran,” the military expert analyzed.

A cyber attack is also conceivable

According to the war correspondent, a reaction by Iran could take place via its terrorist infrastructure that has been built up around the world. From this point of view, the state of God could attack Israeli and Jewish institutions, similar to the attack on the building of the Jewish community and the Israeli embassy in Argentina in the 1990s. According to Ben-Yishai, a cyber attack against Israel’s water infrastructure is also conceivable. “Should an Iranian aggression take place within the Middle East, it would be done by a representative of Iran from one of the states controlled by it. A ballistic missile by Yemeni Houthi rebels on an Israeli ship in the Red Sea or on the city of Eilat would be conceivable.”

Iran will make calculated decisions, especially in the next few weeks, as the change is pending in the White House. “Inside Iran, the hardliners are benefiting politically from the murder,” says Shlomo Yariv. “Any conflict with Israel strengthens their arguments against negotiations with its allies in the West, because they can postpone them until after the Iranian elections in the summer.” Nonetheless, the security expert estimates, “a retaliatory attack by Tehran, especially if it claims victims, can trigger Trump to attack Iran’s nuclear sites and destroy their larger strategic plans.”

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