Assassinations in Iran: Is Israel Seizing the Opportunity?

2 December 2020 Lindsay Hughes, Senior Research Analyst, Indo-Pacific Research Programme

Israel likely fears that the coming Biden Administration will hinder the freedom that it enjoyed to act as it deemed fit throughout the Trump years, so would like to get as much done as it can while Trump remains president.

Background

President Trump has, arguably, supported Israel more than any of his predecessors. He travelled to Israel on his first foreign trip, a highly-symbolic gesture, recognised Jerusalem as its capital and moved the US embassy there, increased military aid to Israel by US$400 million (approx. $544 million), pulled the US out of the flawed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal) that his immediate predecessor initiated, backed Israel’s right to defend itself in Gaza, declared that Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria are not illegal under international law and did not object when Israel’s Defence Minister, Naftali Bennett, said that a new Jewish neighbourhood would be created in Hebron and has never criticised Israel in public, among other ways. It is not surprising, then, that it was in Israel’s interest that he was returned to office.

In the event, Mr Trump lost the presidential election and Mr Biden will succeed him as president. Mr Biden has stated that he would return to the JCPOA, leading a senior Israeli politician to comment that his plan, if Mr Biden were to stick to it, would force Israel into a war with Iran. As Mr Tzachi Hanegbi said, ‘Biden has said openly for a long time that he will go back to the nuclear agreement. I see that as something that will lead to a confrontation between Israel and Iran.’ In his view and, according to him, that of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the general Israeli population, the JCPOA was ‘mistaken – and that’s an understatement.’

Mr Biden, the President-Elect, will take office on 20 January, until which time Mr Trump will remain the President of the United States.

Comment

It is probable that the Ayatollahs in Tehran are pleased with the result of the US election and Mr Biden’s stated policy approach towards Iran. It is equally probable, however, that they are displeased with two assassinations that have taken place in Tehran and its immediate surroundings. The first was that of Abu Mohammed al-Masri (real name Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah), a high-ranking Al Qaeda member and a distant in-law of Osama bin Laden. Mr al-Masri was assassinated in Tehran on 7 August, three days after the explosion in Beirut harbour, on the street where the family of Iraq’s former Shia deputy leader of the Popular Mobilisation Committee (Al-Hashd Al-Sha’abi), Jamal Ja’far Muhammad Ali Al Ibrahim, more popularly known as Abu Mahdi al Mohandes, lives. Mr Mohandes was killed, incidentally, together with Iran’s Quds Force commander, General Qassem Soleimani, during an American operation on 3 January this year in Baghdad.

Iran initially reported that two gunmen on a motorcycle had fired shots into a car that was being driven by a Lebanese professor of History, Habib Daoud, and his 27-year-old daughter, Maryam. It was soon revealed, however, that the innocuous Professor Daoud was, in fact, none other that al Qaeda’s number two, al-Masri, a fact that Iran continued to deny. It is very symbolic and not coincidental at all that the day that he was assassinated was the anniversary of the 1998 attacks on American embassies in Africa, attacks that he masterminded. Maryam, his daughter, was the widow of Osama bin Laden’s son, Hamza.

It is unsurprising that Iran tried to cover up his identity. It would not do for a regime that says it is not at its core a terrorist organisation or, at least, abjures terrorism, to reveal that it had, like Pakistan with Osama bin Laden, harboured a wanted terrorist with a bounty of US$10 million ($13.6 million) on his head. More importantly, however, the Shi’a Ayatollahs could not afford to be seen to be collaborating with a Sunni terrorist because that would lead to the valid perception that they, too, were little more than a terrorist organisation masquerading as the elected government of a country; it would lend to the perception that Iran truly was a propagator of terrorism, as its critics allege.

Two other points are to be noted in relation to the assassination of Mr al-Masri and his daughter. The first is that Tehran’s war against Sunni Islam had been put on hold. (It could be argued, as some commentators do, that this merely illustrates the point that there is no true war between proponents of Shi’a and Sunni Islam. That would be an incorrect conclusion since that contest for superiority has been going on for centuries now and underpins much, if not most, of the political divisions between Tehran and its allies and Saudi Arabia and its). It also highlights Tehran’s hypocrisy in that it is willing to use any association, even with a Sunni terrorist group, to achieve its goals. The second point is that Israel, whose Mossad agents most likely carried out the assassination, is able to strike, almost at will, in Tehran. That ability would underline Mr Netanyahu’s earlier comment to Iran, ‘We know everything you’re doing.’ It is embarrassing to Tehran to have to acknowledge, even tacitly, that Mr Netanyahu is correct in his assessment and that Israel can carry out an assassination in Tehran itself.

There could be little doubt that an operation of the magnitude of the one that killed Mr al-Masri occurred without Washington’s permission, specifically Mr Trump’s.

As if to underline those points, it was reported recently that Iranian nuclear physicist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the chief of Iran’s military nuclear programme, had been assassinated in an ambush near Tehran. Mr Fakhrizadeh was shot by unknown assailants while driving and his vehicle blown up but Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, tweeted that the assassination bore all the hallmarks of Israeli agents. As if to emphasise his regime’s inability to prevent these attacks, Ayatollah Khamenei condemned the assassination and ordered his officials to punish its perpetrators, saying,

Mr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a prominent nuclear and defence scientist of the country, was martyred by criminal and cruel mercenaries. The unique scientific figure gave his dear and precious soul in the way of God for his great and lasting scientific efforts, and the high position of martyrdom is his divine reward.

He added,

Two important issues should be seriously put on the agenda by all relevant officials; first, probing the crime and the definite punishment of those who perpetrated and ordered it; and second, pursuing and continuing the martyr’s scientific and technical efforts in all the sectors in which he was engaged.

Interestingly, in June 2012, Iran’s Intelligence Ministry announced that its forces had identified and arrested all “terrorist elements” behind the assassination of the country’s nuclear scientists.

While the assassination of Mr al-Masri occurred before the US presidential election was conducted, it is probable that it occurred with the permission of the Trump Administration. The assassination of Mr Fakhrizadeh would have been months in the planning but also took place during Mr Trump’s tenure. It is equally likely that it occurred with the blessing of Saudi Arabia and was given the green light to proceed during the meeting between US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and Mr Netanyahu during their meeting in Neom, the Crown Prince’s proposed mega-city, Neom. Mr Netanyahu’s presence at the meeting was not officially disclosed but is an open secret.

If Mr Biden holds true to his stated policy approach to Ian and re-enters the JCPOA, it is very unlikely that he would allow Israel to carry out assassinations against Iranian personnel. Israel knows, therefore, that it has to achieve as many strikes against Iran as it can while Mr Trump remains in office.

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