All options are on the table.
The assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, has significantly escalated tensions between Iran and Israel. Last week, a multilateral coordinating effort was on full display, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made an unprecedented visit to Saudi Arabia, with the presence of United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and discussed plans to confront Iran prior to Joe Biden assuming office and kickstarting diplomacy with Iran. As I assessed in my last article, “The Next Covert Operation in Iran”, Saudi Crown Prince Bin Salman was involved in the talks to orchestrate the attack, while Iran-backed Houthi rebels responded with warning strikes against the Aramco facility. A new report by now indicates that MBS took the warning shots seriously and backed away from supporting covert operations inside Iran. Following the assassination, numerous reports exposed that Israel was the culprit, with the potential backing of the United States — as illustrated by Donald Trump’s celebratory retweets on the matter. Iran has vowed to respond.
However, for Iran, a “proportional” retaliation might be off the table. Tehran is calculating that a wait-and-see approach until January 20th can embolden the Israelis, while any retaliation after January 20th risks escalating tensions with the Biden administration. On the other hand, even a limited retaliation prior to January 20th can invite more tit-for-tat Mossad assassinations. Iran hopes to end escalations, not prolong them. At the same time, Iran wants to restore deterrence, build leverage, and negotiate from a position of strength.
In this light, Iran might consider exacting “total revenge”: a direct military strike against various targets inside Israel. Such response, most likely in the form of a ballistic missile strike, might not originate from Iranian soil, but will most likely target Israeli soil. In fact, if executed, this will be in direct retaliation to an Israeli-sponsored assassination on Iranian soil. Some decision-makers in Tehran might argue that such a severe military strike will compel Israel to make the ultimate choice: to enter an all-out-war or de-escalate. Until January 20th, these decision-makers see total revenge as an opportunity. In doing so, Tehran builds leverage prior to talks with the US and finally accounts for Israeli strikes in Syria, calculating that Washington and Tel Aviv lack the will to engage in total war.
Nevertheless, Iran is confronting an unpredictable White House. Donald Trump is highly temperamental and might very well get involved in a US-Iran conflict (while this can hurt his legacy), and Israel can miscalculate and quickly aim to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. Iran’s risk tolerance has increased, but total revenge will be a big gamble. Henceforth, other options are also on the table. Iranian intelligence might assess that the Mujahedeen-E-Khalgh terrorist organization played a role in carrying out the assassination, and thereby start targeting MEK operating cells at home and abroad. The assassination might also trigger a full-blown intelligence war that might ensue between Iran and Israel, with Iran striking Mossad cells in its immediate region. In this tit-for-tat intelligence war, sensitive powerful persons might become targets, as Mr. Fakhrizadeh was an immensely sensitive figure in Iran’s scientific circles.
In short, the Mossad has opened the pandora’s box, inflaming regional tensions for the next two months.