The Iranian regime has this year suffered two major blows — one military and one nuclear — that have humiliated the theocratic establishment. The first was the January killing of Qassem Soleimani, who was in charge of the Quds Force and extraterritorial operations, exporting Iran’s ideology and revolutionary ideals. The second was last week’s assassination of top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.
The killings of Soleimani and Fakhrizadeh exposed the weakness of Iran’s security and intelligence apparatuses and the regime’s inability to prevent the leaking of confidential information. The regime, which has always taken pride in and boasted about its military power, was also humiliated in front of its network of militia and terror groups across the region.
Leaders from across the Iranian political spectrum have vowed to respond to the latest setback in a harsh manner. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei tweeted: “There are two matters that people in charge should put in their to do list: — To follow up the atrocity and retaliate against those who were responsible for it. 2 — To follow up Martyr Fakhrizadeh’s scientific and technical activities in all fields in which he was active.” The so-called moderate President Hassan Rouhani also promised that Iran would take revenge for the killing of Fakhrizadeh.
But will Iran actually retaliate? And, if so, how and when? Tehran undoubtedly will retaliate, but it is important to look at its current overarching strategy when it comes to hitting the US and its allies. The regime’s modus operandi is anchored in inflicting damage in an indirect manner in order to avoid instigating an all-out war. This is due to the fact that a full-scale war with Israel or the US would most likely lead to the collapse of the Iranian regime. Therefore, Tehran cannot afford a direct conflict.
Any direct confrontation with a US ally would most likely also drag America into the equation and tip the balance firmly against Tehran. In spite of the fact that Iran is larger geographically and has a bigger population than Israel, its military capacity is inferior to both Israel and the US. And what fundamentally changes the balance of power is Israel’s nuclear capacity, as Tel Aviv is widely believed to have enough weapons-grade plutonium for an arsenal of 100 to 200 nuclear warheads.
The Tehran regime is also cognizant of the fact that the Iranian people’s frustration and resentment toward the government is escalating. Any full-scale war might start another national uprising, which could threaten the hold on power of the ruling clerics. The theocratic establishment is also facing difficult times when it comes to the economy thanks to the US sanctions, which have hit Iran’s energy, banking and shipping sectors hard.
More importantly, the regime believes that the Trump administration is different from other US administrations in the sense that it would not hesitate to strike Iran if it hit the US or its allies. In fact, the prevailing narrative within Iran’s political establishment is that the Trump administration and Israel want to drag Tehran into a war in the final weeks of 2020, and that the regime must not fall into this trap. A headline in state-controlled newspaper Arman-e Melli read: “Trap of tension: Assassination of another nuclear scientist.” The newspaper explained that Iran must be very cautious and patient in the final weeks of Donald Trump’s time in office and it should neutralize tensions with Israel and the US.
Foreign Minister Javad Zarif similarly pointed a finger at Israel and warned about its intention of starting a war with Iran before Joe Biden takes over. He tweeted: “Terrorists murdered an eminent Iranian scientist today. This cowardice — with serious indications of Israeli role — shows desperate warmongering of perpetrators.”
Therefore, the Iranian regime will most likely wait until the Trump administration is out of office before it takes revenge and saves face. Iran will resort to the type of warfare that it has mastered: Arming its proxies and instructing them to launch missiles and drones into other nations. Iran can also harass ships in the Strait of Hormuz, as it has done previously. Other strategies that Iran can deploy include kidnapping Western citizens, assassinating Western officials, and ordering Iraqi militias to hit US targets. A few months ago, intelligence reports revealed that the Iranian regime was weighing up an assassination attempt against the American ambassador to South Africa. After all, the regime has been engaged in many assassination and terrorist plots since its establishment in 1979.
Overall, there is no question that the Iranian regime will retaliate following the assassination of Fakhrizadeh. But it will most likely wait until Trump leaves the White House and will respond in a way that does not lead to all-out war with Israel or the US, because that could result in the collapse of the regime.