The Cold Calculus of Decapitation
By Amir Oren
Less than a day after Iranian Nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was gunned down outside of Tehran, there are more speculations than facts to support any degree of certainty about the event’s consequences. Yet, some dimensions are clear, at least as perceived by the major actors, with the question remaining, was it worth it – and to whom.
Iranian regimes have traditionally used assassinations to kill key rivals and intimidate others. The Shah managed to have his estranged SAVAK founding chief Teymur Bakhtiar murdered in Iraq. Teymur’s cousin Shapour, last Prime Minister before Khomeini took over, was murdered in France. Persians are no more morally shocked by politically motivated assassinations than other people, and one man’s terror act is another’s national or religious heroism.
So the issue is not whether the targeted killing of a scientist leading an effort to develop a weapon of mass destruction is justified – obviously, a nation founded by Holocaust survivors will decide to err on the side of caution – but rather is the specific action, in particular circumstances, of over-all benefit to its perpetrators, or could it prove to be counter-productive.
The timing was significant on several levels. Tactically, it was probably no coincidence that the Friday attack awaited, so as not to abort, the Thursday release from Iranian prison of British-Australian scholar Kylie Moore-Gilbert in exchange for three Iranians caught in Thailand planning assaults on Israeli targets there.
Strategically, President Trump and his “Maximum Pressure” campaign against Iran are on their way out. They managed to impoverish Iran and its proxies but not to bring them to their knees. The two-month transition to the Biden administration is a last window of opportunity – and mischief. Windows, of course, have two sides. What can be thrown out of them can also be thrown in from the outside.
Trump is reportedly itching to strike one last time at Iran. He started 2020 with the killing of IRGC Quds Force mastermind Qassem Soleimani and may wish to end it with a similar, or even more impressive, bang. But he is not in total control of the situation he will create. There is Congress, there is resistance within the career corps, there is no guarantee that he will not unleash another “forever war” of the sort his policy aims to finish and there is no way for him to lure the Ayatollahs into a transparent trap. They waited him out for almost four years and may well hold their breath for the short remainder.
As for Binyamin Netanyahu, who desperately needs some victories to off-set his legal troubles, the Fakhrizadeh assassination is nothing but cost-free.
Netanyahu depicted Fakhrizadeh as indispensable to the Iranian Nuclear project. Netanyahu himself excepted, it is very rare to find a person who has not outlived his usefullness after many years in office and is ripe to be replaced by younger and fresher forces. But taken face value, the argument is a double-edged centrifuge. If Fakhrizadeh is so instrumental, than the danger to Israel has now significantly lessened and there is much less of a case for a bombing campaign against the Iranian Nuclear infrastructure, a hallmark of Netanyahu’s agenda.
Indeed, the Fakhrizadeh assassination is emblematic of the Israeli school opposite to Netanyahu. From the early 2000’s on, as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq ceased to be a major threat to Israel and Iran took that role – though it halted its race to the bomb, both because it feared the US and because Iraq’s Nuclear quest was no longer an issue – there were two basic positions in Israel’s decision-making elite. Ariel Sharon and his MOSSAD chief Meir Dagan, joined by senior officers in the IAF and IDF General Staff, believed that Israel should not be in the forefront of a global campaign against Iranian Nuclearization. Europe and the US were to be recruited to lead the effort. Simultaneously, a series of clandestine actions were to be taken, none too warlike to provoke a prolonged conflict and mobilize the Iranian population behind a distasteful regime.
A major feature of this policy, which prevailed until Netanyahu returned to power in 2009, was a harsh enforcement of the military censor against any media report which assigned to Israel responsibilty for whichever misfortune befell a laboratory, plant or engineer. The Iranians were allowed to save face, as Sharon and Dagan – who specialized, according to a mutual confidant, in “seperating bad guys’ heads from their bodies” – knew the ways of the Middle East, wanted the head, not the face. The same reasoning held with Bashar Assad and the destruction of the North Korean reactor in Syria, which generated no retaliation because Assad was not exposed to his public as helpless, which a dictator cannot tolerate.
The Sharon-Dagan school, which carried over into Ehud Olmert’s term and included key military officers such as Dani Haloutz, Gabi Ashkenazi and Gadi Eisenkot, blocked Netanyahu’s efforts to launch a faux-Churchillian campaign against Iran. All Israelis were and are deadset against an Iranian Nuclear arsenal – a point well understood in Tehran and one reason there is no intention there to risk getting to the very brink, but rather stay close to the threshold and get whatever benefits from this limbo. Iranian decision making, even in the fanatic Islamic Republic, has been bazaar, not bizarre.
Where his predecessors and the defence establishment to this day preferred pinpricks, Netanyahu wants bunker-busters. They would keep silent, he would gloat. It his its Washington angle, of course – Democratic Presidents tend to take the discrete way, while Netanyahu is allied with Republicans, from Speaker Gingrich in the 1990’s to Trump.
So was it worth it, in substance and in style? John Brennan, Obama’s CIA director and a close associate of Biden’s national security team principals, condemned the “state-sponsored terror” and signalled to the Iranians that they should wait for the incoming administration, which wants a return – with certain changes and conditions to the JCPOA (the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action, not the presumed Israeli version of Jews Conducting Plan Of Assassinations). It is therefore up to Khamenei, both technically – whether he finds a suitable substitute for Fakhrizadeh, as was the case when Hassan Nasrallah replaced the assassinated Abbas Mousavi, but was not following the more recent killings of Emad Mughnieh and Soleimani – and strategically, and then, starting January 20, up to Biden. The final score will be known only at game’s end – or a series of deadly games.