Iran Assassination Doesn't Change the Balance: Israel Still Needs the U.S. and Biden

The killing of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh changed the game just as Biden is set to enter the White House, but Jerusalem has to assume that Washington is taking plenty of notes

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A demonstration in Tehran, featuring a picture of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh and a sign in Hebrew reading 'Vengence means Tel Aviv will burn on fire,' November 29, 2020.
A demonstration in Tehran, featuring a picture of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh and a sign in Hebrew reading 'Vengence means Tel Aviv will burn on fire,' November 29, 2020.Credit: WANA/Reuters
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

A new, more combative tone is being heard in the press briefings from Jerusalem since the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on Friday. Israel is being portrayed as a major, almost omnipotent player in the Middle East.

Its intelligence and operational capabilities, as manifest in the operation, which the Iranians are attributing to the Mossad, enable it to dictate the course of events. If it wants, it will act again against targets in Iran. And even if it doesn’t choose to do so, it is capable of disrupting the resumption of negotiations between Iran and the United States once Joe Biden assumes the U.S. presidency on January 20.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hinted at Israeli involvement. “I can’t tell you everything,” he said, summing up his weekly activities a few hours after the assassination. Ministers who were interviewed after that maintained the usual pretense: “I have no idea who did it, but …”

Behind the scenes there is a dispute among top officials: Is there still justification for the policy of ambiguity, or is it better to take responsibility for actions, since in any case everybody knows?

The chairman of the Institute for National Security Studies, Maj.-Gen. (res) Amos Yadlin, was the most direct of those responding. After he also said he didn’t know who was responsible for the operation, he told Army Radio on Sunday that whoever operated in Tehran “has one eye, or maybe two, on Washington. If the Iranians respond it will enable President Donald Trump to order his generals to act against them. And if they don’t, it could still possibly block the Biden administration from opening negotiations.”

The operation itself has garnered the world’s admiration. The New York Times quoted Bruce Riedel, a former senior CIA official, as saying that seldom has any country demonstrated a similar ability to strike in the heart of the territory of its fiercest enemy. “It’s unprecedented,” he said. “And it shows no sign of being effectively countered by the Iranians.”

The question is whether Israel can leverage this successful operation on the diplomatic front. Will the Biden administration accept the operation, and perhaps other moves, as a fait accompli, or will it at some point decide to remind Israel about the real balance of power? With all due respect to the intelligence and military cooperation between the two countries, which has become much more extensive in recent years due to the excellent relations Netanyahu had with Trump, Israel does not have equal standing with the United States. It is America that is transferring $3.8 billion in defense assistance to Israel every year, not the other way around.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama publicly restrained himself in response to many of Netanyahu’s humiliations and provocations, but there were times when he settled accounts with him later on, especially after Netanyahu publicly attacked the Iranian nuclear agreement in his speech to Congress in 2015. The assassination on Friday was vehemently criticized by several former Obama administration officials, while the incoming Biden team has maintained a thundering silence. Neither the president-elect nor his vice president-elect have said a word. That doesn’t mean they are letting the incident pass. Jerusalem has to assume that Washington is taking plenty of notes.

The current administration hastened to leak that it may not have been behind the operation east of Tehran, but Israel instead. It isn’t totally clear what’s going on among the triangle of Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (who visited Israel recently, expressing demonstrative support for Netanyahu), and the generals. Washington is giving off mixed signals, which the Iranians are certainly having difficulty decoding.

In recent days there were reports about aircraft carriers and heavy bombers being transferred to the Middle East and South Asia, but this was explained as being connected to preparations to implement the president’s order to remove the remaining U.S. forces from Iraq and Afghanistan. Above all, no one understands what Trump himself wants, and how much attention he’s even paying to what’s going on between Israel and Iran while he’s busy protesting the injustice he claims was done to him in the presidential election.

Demonstrators in Tehran burning photos of President Trump and President-elect Biden, November 29, 2020.Credit: WANA/ Reuters

Will Iran choose to respond? Most experts say yes. The blow it was dealt was too serious to be greeted with silence, especially since it follows two other embarrassments – the assassination in January of Gen. Qassem Soleimani and the explosion in the nuclear facility in Natanz in July. (The United States took responsibility for the former, the latter was attributed in the media to Israel, which neither confirmed nor denied it.)

The Iranians have some tactical limitations; in the past, in 2012, 2018, and this year as well, when they tried to take revenge on Israel, things tended to go wrong. And there’s the question of timing – does a quick response justify taking risks with Trump before Biden takes over?

The declarations made by senior officials in Tehran since the assassination were pretty aggressive and threatening. One newspaper close to the Revolutionary Guards issued a call to attack Haifa Port. Israel is not ruling out other possibilities, either, including ballistic missile fire, cruise missiles, a drone attack or an effort to blow up embassies abroad.

Tehran already took one practical step on Sunday, announcing it was raising its level of uranium enrichment to 20 percent. That’s a violation of the nuclear agreement, but Iran had already violated it more than a year ago when it started enriching to a level of 4.5 percent, in response to the American withdrawal from the pact.

Let’s not forget cyber warfare. In May there were reports about an Iranian attempt to attack water installations here, and on an alleged Israeli response, which for several days totally disrupted ship movements at a port in southern Iran. Recently there have been reports of other attempted cyberattacks against water and energy infrastructure in Israel, all of which were apparently foiled.

The advantage of computerized attacks, like attacking through proxies in Iraq or Syria, is that it allows room for denials. But it seems that at least one regional player isn’t enthusiastic about serving the Iranians in this fashion. While Hezbollah expressed sorrow over the death of its comrade in arms, Fakhrizadeh, it isn’t volunteering to engage. On the contrary, a senior Hezbollah official took pains to announce over the weekend that none of its fighters had been hurt in the recent attacks in Syria attributed to Israel. In other words, revenge is the Iranians’ business, or perhaps that of the Assad regime in Syria, but not Hezbollah’s.

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