Cheeky killings expose Iran’s vulnerabilities as they struggle to respond

The raid alone was pretty cheeky. A team of Israeli commandos with high-powered torches exploded into the vault of a heavily guarded warehouse deep in Iran, and before dawn, 5,000 pages of top-secret paper set off the country’s nuclear program.

Then, a few weeks later, in April 2018, in a television broadcast, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quoted the contents of the cracked documents and zealously referred to the equally bold operations already planned.

“Don’t forget that name,” he said as he singled out scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh as captain of Iran’s secret attempt to assemble a nuclear weapon.

Now, Mr. Fakhrizadeh has become the latest victim of an increasing campaign of daring covert attacks, apparently torturing Iranian leaders to recall their weaknesses. Operations are faced with a torturous choice before Tehran to accept the demands for quick retaliation against the hardliners, or to try to start again with the less mercilessly hostile administration of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.

According to Iranian media, Mr. Fakhrizadeh’s car was carefully driven around a city outside of Tehran and led to his brothers-in-law on a Nissan loaded with explosives on Friday, a car bomb that knocked out an electric wire. and witness accounts. An armed team then jumped out of a black SUV, suppressed its bodyguards and released the shooting before hurrying as Mr. Fakhrizadeh lay dying on the street.

Fakhrizadeh’s assassination was the last of a decade-long pattern of mysterious poisonings, car bombings, shootings, thefts, and sabotage that plagued the Islamic Republic. Most have been hit by anonymous scientists or secret facilities suspected of being linked to its nuclear program, and almost both American and Iranian officials attribute it to Tehran’s great nemesis, Israel, whose officials have openly but openly mischievously about more and more successes. espionage without officially acknowledging that Israeli agents are behind it.

However, the Islamic Republic has never suffered such covert attacks as in 2020. In January, an American drone strike killed the respected General Qassim Suleimani while sitting in a car leaving Baghdad airport (an attack facilitated by Israeli intelligence, officials say). Iran was humiliated in August by a fatal shot by an Israeli faith team with a senior Al Qaeda leader on the streets of Tehran (this time, U.S. officials said).

Any country in Seldom has a similar ability to strike seemingly with impunity on its fiercest enemy, said Bruce Reidel, a Brookings Institute researcher and former Central Intelligence Agency official with experience in Israel.

“Unprecedented,” he said. “And that shows no signs that the Iranians would effectively oppose it.”

With the assassination of top nuclear scientists on Friday, Iranians are now grappling with a new sense of vulnerability, demands for the cleansing of suspected collaborators, and a torturous debate at an awkward moment.

Iran has endured four years of devastating economic sanctions under President Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, and many Iranian leaders are desperately hoping for some relief from the Biden government. The president-elect has promised to try to revive an expired agreement that will lift sanctions against Iran in exchange for stopping nuclear exploration, which could produce weapons.

For pragmatic Iranians, the desire to start again means that Mr Trump’s last months are not fit for the country to cut back and risk a renewed cycle of hostility.

But at the same time, some Iranians openly acknowledge that their enemies in the United States and Israel could take advantage of the current moment to further attack Tehran, squeezing its leaders between the domestic demands of revenge and the practical desire for better relations.

“Starting today, until Trump leaves the White House, is the most dangerous period for Iran,” Mohammad-Hossein Khoshvaght, a former official with the Ministry of Culture and Orientation, wrote on Twitter.

Retaliation against Israel or Netanyahu’s main ally, the United States, would fall into the hands of Iran’s enemies in the region who “want to create a difficult situation,” so Mr. Biden cannot revive this nuclear deal, Mr. Khoshvaght. he added.

Some hardliners have argued that the killing of Mr Fakhrizadeh shows that Tehran must give up a resumption with Mr Biden, if only because restraint encourages his enemies.

“If it does not respond to this level of terrorism, they can repeat it because they now know that Iran will not respond,” Foad Izadi, a conservative political analyst, said in an interview in Tehran.

“Obviously there’s a problem when you repeat these types of things.

Emphasizing Mr. Fakhrizadeh’s stature despite his former Iranian anonymity, his authorities announced on Saturday that a national hero would be buried in one of the country’s holiest shrines.

Videos circulated about a high-ranking priest praying at the head of justice with his scientist’s family over an Iranian-flagged body and uncovered face – an extraordinary and inexplicable departure from the Islamic tradition of the dead being wrapped in white robes from head to toe.

Israel has been pursuing a strategy of targeted assassinations for decades in an attempt to slow down the potential progress towards the development of nuclear weapons among hostile neighbors. Israeli intelligence agencies have been linked to the killing of scientists working for Egypt in the 1960s and Iraq in the 1970s for the same reason, historians say.

Iran first accused Israel of killing one of its scientists when it fell dead in its laboratory after the 2007 poisoning, and between 2010 and 2012, a number of more violent attacks on Iranian scientists were also attributed to Israel.

In one, a bomb from a parked motorcycle blew up a particle physicist as he lowered the garage door at his home in Tehran. In three others, motorcyclists speeding past the moving car of three other scientists struck magnetic bombs at the car doors, killing two and injuring a third. During the fifth attack, motorcycle gunmen scattered the scientists with bullets while stopping his car at a lamp, sitting next to him with his wife.

Israel has achieved uniquely successful results against Iran, in part by focusing its spy agencies ’significant resources primarily on the largest nemesis, Riedel of the Brookings Institute said.

Israel, he said, has carefully nurtured relations with countries neighboring Iran as “platforms” for surveillance and recruitment – notably in Baku, Azerbaijan. Its recent conflict with Armenia has drawn attention to drones and other weapons that Israel has provided to Azerbaijan as part of this relationship.

Israel has followed the practice of recruiting native-speaking native speakers from among Iranian immigrants to establish contacts or analyze intercepted communications, he added, and Israel has also managed to involve a number of Iranian staff.

Now Mr Riedel has argued that the attack on Fakhrizadeh may indicate that Israel is once again trying to exploit this network for similar missions. After an eight-year “break” since the 2010-2012 murder wave, he said, “I think it’s a sign that the game has started or is approaching.”

A senior Israeli official, who spoke anonymously to discuss covert operations, was involved in Mr Fakhrizadeh’s Israeli follow-up for years and said he would continue to take action against Iran’s nuclear program if necessary. His efforts to support Iran’s nuclear weapons, backed by Mr Fakhrizadeh, posed such a threat that the world should thank Israel, the official insisted.

In Iran, the assassination has already provoked new demands to exterminate such spies, including Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s top leader.

In his first public response to the murder, Mr Khamenei stated that “the investigation of this crime and the final punishment of the perpetrators” is of paramount importance.

The hardliners are the responsibility of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani – a pragmatist who received the Washington talks with great force – for the security failures that made the attack possible.

“The night is long and awake,” said Hossein Dehghan, a recently announced candidate for next year’s presidential election who is the Commander-in-Chief of the Revolutionary Guard and Mr. Khamenei’s defense adviser.

“As thunder, we fall on the heads of those responsible for killing the martyr and make them regret it,” he continued in a Twitter message.

Mr Rouhani, for his part, suggested in his televised speech that Iran continue what it called “strategic patience” or what its critics expect of Mr Biden.

“We will respond in a timely manner,” Mr. Rouhani said. “All enemies should know that the great Iranian people are more courageous and honorable if they do not respond to this crime.”

Analysts say, however, within Iranian politics, hardliners have made the most of the attack politically. Any renewed conflict with Israel will reinforce their case against negotiations with its Western allies, Sanam Vakil said at the Chatham House in London.

Ever since Mr Biden won the November election, the hardliners have begun their efforts against Mr Rouhani to postpone negotiations with the new US administration for as long as possible, Ms Vakil said, because the conflict with Washington is strengthening their attractiveness and weakening it. practical factions in next year’s Iranian elections.

“So an event like this is in the hands of the hardliners,” she said, “because they could deport the talks even after the Iranian election – and that’s why they’re shooting. “