The assassination on Friday of Iran’s leading nuclear scientist has heightened suspicions that Donald Trump, in cahoots with hardline Israeli and Saudi allies, may be trying to lure the Tehran regime into an all-out confrontation in the dying days of his presidency. Trump’s four-year-long Iranian vendetta is approaching a climax – and he still has the power and the means to inflict lasting damage.
Speculation that Trump might soon initiate or support some kind of attack on Iran, overt or covert, kinetic or cyber, had swirled across the Middle East in the wake of last weekend’s unprecedented meeting in Saudi Arabia between Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
What the three men discussed remains a closely guarded secret, a fact that has only served to encourage conspiracy claims. In the absence of an official statement, it’s suggested they may have agreed to intensify efforts to provoke and weaken the Tehran regime. Any ensuing retaliation by Iran might then potentially be used to justify an attack on its nuclear facilities before Trump leaves office on 20 January.
The meeting in Neom, a city near the Red Sea, and the possibly deliberate leak revealing it had taken place, served another important purpose. By presenting a united anti-Iran front, the participants put US president-elect Joe Biden on notice that his plans to resume dialogue with Tehran, and revive the 2015 nuclear deal abandoned by Trump, will face fierce resistance and may have to be rethought.
If Iran hits back over the assassination, as threatened by its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Biden’s hopes of calming the regional situation could be blown apart – along with Iran’s nuclear facilities at Natanz and elsewhere. And there’s another danger. Even if the regime holds back, loyalist Shia militias in Iraq, Syria or Lebanon could take matters into their own hands.
“We will strike as thunder at the killers of this oppressed martyr and will make them regret their action,” Hossein Dehghan, a senior military commander, vowed in a tweet. Yet Iran’s dilemma is excruciating. If it does retaliate in any obvious way, it could give its enemies the excuse they want and the opportunity they crave to deliver a crushing blow.
Iran’s leaders have little doubt that Israel, with a probable green light from Washington, was behind the assassination. President Hassan Rouhani expressly blamed the “usurper Zionist regime”. Foreign minister Javad Zarif tweeted that there were “serious indications” of an Israeli role. “Iran calls on international community – and especially EU – to end their shameful double standards & condemn this act of state terror,” he wrote.
The methods used to kill the scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was gunned down in a street near Tehran, resembled those used in a spate of similar killings of nuclear experts between 2010 and 2012 that Iran blamed on Israel. In 2018, Netanyahu singled out Fakhrizadeh as Iran’s supposed nuclear weapons mastermind.
The assassination also recalled last January’s lethal ambush of General Qassem Suleimani, the Iranian Islamic revolutionary guard corps commander, which was personally ordered by Trump. While Suleimani was regarded as a national hero, Fakhrizadeh was also a man of high seniority. For Iran, his death is a body blow.
Trump has shown himself ready to use covert means to punish the Iranian regime, which he accuses of secretly developing nuclear weapons and destabilising the Middle East – claims Iran adamantly denies. The US and Israel are believed to have launched repeated sabotage attacks inside Iran on Trump’s watch.
In July, the Natanz nuclear fuel enrichment facilities were damaged by a mysterious explosion. This month, Trump reportedly discussed options for hitting Natanz and other targets after UN inspectors said Iran’s low-enriched uranium stockpile was now 12 times higher than permitted under the 2015 nuclear deal abandoned by Trump.
For still undisclosed reasons, Trump ordered several nuclear-capable B-52 Stratofortress bombers to fly 7,000 miles to the Middle East last weekend.
Was the assassination a one-off designed to damage Iran’s nuclear programme? Or could all this be a prelude to something more strategically explosive as Trump strives to secure his wished-for legacy as scourge of Iran and saviour of Israel?
Trump certainly needs a win. His Iran policy to date has mostly resulted in own goals. His “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign hurt the Iranian people but left their leaders unbowed. The regime is now closer to acquiring nuclear bomb-making capability than it would have been had Trump not reneged on the nuclear deal.
Yet what happens next also depends, up to a point, on Israel and Saudi Arabia. Netanyahu and Prince Mohammed are keen to send a message to Biden that what they characterise as appeasement of Iran will not work. If the nuclear deal is to be resurrected, they want loopholes plugged and new elements added. Meanwhile, they say sanctions on Iran should continue.
But both men must tread carefully. Netanyahu cannot ignore Biden’s views or the impact expanding hostilities could have on Israel’s security. As for the crown prince, he would doubtless like to see Iran given a bloody nose. But he, too, has to ponder the cost of turning Saudi cities and oil terminals into targets. For them, the assassination represents a high-risk gamble.
Iran’s leaders must now decide whether to resist the urge to retaliate – or lash out and invite a larger conflict at a moment when the country’s sanctions and Covid-hit economy is on its knees. It’s a fateful moment for the entire Middle East. Full of brooding malevolence, Trump is waiting to pounce. After four years of failure, he may be tempted to go out with a bang.