The Iran Assassination Doesn’t Bring Us Closer to War
The head of Iran’s military nuclear program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was assassinated near Tehran recently. Many assume Israel was behind the attack. Reactions from prominent American voices — including in the Democratic Party, mainstream media outlets, and liberal Jewish organizations — have voiced three main critiques. First, that it was an unnecessary provocation that will lead to escalation, making America and its allies less safe. Second, that it was meant to sabotage incoming President Biden’s ability to reach a deal with Iran. Third, that military action will encourage Iran to further expand its nuclear program, and that diplomacy is the only way to get Iran to cease its illegal nuclear activity.
Such statements exhibit a flawed understanding of the nature of the Iranian regime; its threat to the US, Israel, and other allies; and to the nature of the current conflict between these parties. In short, this assassination won’t lead to war with Iran because we are already in the midst of that war.
1. The assassination will lead to escalation and make America’s allies less safe.
The truth is that the US and some of its NATO allies, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States have long been fighting a shadow war against Iran. While Fakhrizadeh was the most senior figure in Iran’s military nuclear program, he is not the first nuclear scientist or senior figure to be targeted.
Conversely, Iran has hardly sat still, not before the JCPOA, not when the US was a signatory to it, and not since the US exited the agreement. Iran continues with its ambitions to extend its influence and control over the region. It continues to arm, train, and fund Hezbollah in Lebanon and build its direct military presence in Syria. It has attempted multiple times to threaten Israel from Syria through missile and drone attacks. It continues to back proxy actors in Iraq and has attacked American targets. It continues to back the Houthis in Yemen and has launched a major drone and missile strike against Saudi oil installations. It continues to threaten American and British ships in the Persian Gulf and employ increasingly sophisticated cyber-attacks.
Basically, while such an assassination could lead to a specific reprisal, it will hardly lead to a major escalation since the war is already happening.
Moreover, there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of how Iran fights wars against technologically superior enemies. Iran is fully aware of its lack of conventional capabilities. Therefore, it employs significant and deniable asymmetric capabilities such as its various proxies throughout the region, trained and operated by its Quds Force. Iran has not stopped fighting this war against the West and its Arab allies — it simply does so in ways that do not seem to get covered widely in the American press. As a part of this, Iran tends to operate in ways that allow it deniability so as not to draw a direct counterattack.
2. The assassination was meant to sabotage incoming President Biden’s ability to reenter the JCPOA with Iran.
Is it possible that Israel would undertake such a daring maneuver with the sole purpose of sabotaging the friendly and incoming president of its greatest ally and the most powerful nation on earth? Perhaps. Is it likely? Doubtful. Such operations take months if not longer of careful intelligence gathering, asset building and planning, and then waiting for an operational window and ensuring all the puzzle pieces fit perfectly together. It is highly likely that such an operation was planned well before it was clear Biden would win the election.
It may be that Israel’s leadership (assuming it was behind the strike) calculated that a President Biden seeking to reenter negotiations would not support such an operation and therefore, it would be wiser to undertake it in the final days of the Trump administration. But to think a close ally would undergo such a risk to hamstring Biden’s diplomatic options spills into conspiracy theory territory.
3. Military action will encourage Iran to further expand its nuclear enrichment, while diplomacy is the only way to get Iran to comply.
Over the past decade and a half, Iran has shown that it will only slow its illicit behavior — nuclear, ballistic, or regional — when it is placed under significant pressure. The combination of economic and diplomatic pressure with the threat of the use of force is what brought Iran to the table in the first place.
It is true that, in the end, a negotiated solution to which Iran agrees is preferable to a military strike, which might only set Iran back a few years. However, such an agreement is best reached when Iran feels the alternative would be more painful.
Moreover, it is worthwhile to consider Fakhrizadeh’s singular importance to Iran’s nuclear program. He was the mastermind behind Iran’s illicit nuclear program and a general in the Revolutionary Guard Corps. Surely, the technical and organizational knowledge he possessed was deemed critical enough that his neutralization warranted such a risk. While everyone is ultimately replaceable, some are more replaceable than others. Moreover, such an assassination can often lead to chaos, as organizations tear themselves apart to understand where or who is leaking information and as scientists become frightened to do their jobs or even report to work.
Time and again, Iran has shown that when given an inch it will take a mile. Rather than strengthening moderates as the Obama team hoped, after the nuclear deal, Iran’s radicals sensed they could pursue their agenda with impunity, as Iran did in Syria when Obama refused to take action after the alleged chemical weapons strike on Syrian citizens.
Israel’s goal, from day one, has been to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. This is not a theoretical debate between right and left, as is taking place in the US. Iran having a nuclear weapon is an existential threat to Israel and a significant threat to other US allies in the region. Perhaps the Obama team never fully appreciated this and was willing to take a risk on a deal that would convince Iran to give up its radical leanings. It’s a nice idea, but not one Israel can take a chance on.
Israel’s enemies are not theoretical nor across an ocean. They are very real and very nearby. However, the alternative to the JCPOA is not war, and such targeted killings will not lead to a serious escalation. That is because we are already in that war, and it is one that Israel cannot afford to lose. What does victory look like? Iran realizing that verifiably and permanently halting its nuclear program is in its own interest, and preferable to the military, economic, and diplomatic pressure it is currently under.
Dan Feferman is a major (res.) in the Israel Defense Forces, where he served in national security and intelligence positions. He researches, writes, and speaks on Israel and the Middle East, and co-hosts the Jewanced Podcast.