Unlike Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian general in charge of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard killed by a US drone strike in January, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was not a household name within Iran or well known outside it. But Fakhrizadeh is widely regarded as a key figure in Iran’s nuclear weapons programme and his assassination late last month — for which no one has yet claimed responsibility — will have serious geopolitical implications in West Asia and beyond. That he was accompanied by several bodyguards to the last, even when he was killed in an ambush attack on a rural road outside Tehran, attests to how seriously Iran took his security.
Fakhrizadeh’s assassination, coming soon after Soleimani’s killing, has led to speculation about the perpetrators’ motives. Iran has hinted that Israel and Saudi Arabia are behind the attack and has vowed revenge. At the same time, the government has attempted to downplay Fakhrizadeh’s importance, and given the nature of the ambush on Iranian soil, seems to want to discourage speculation that the assassins may have had help from locals on the ground. The official response has been two-fold: President Hassan Rouhani appears to be counselling patience, arguing for “revenge” at a time and place of Iran’s choosing, while the IRGC seems to favour immediate retaliation. What is immediately in the spotlight, though, is the Iran nuclear deal which Donald Trump pulled out of and a Joe Biden White House will likely consider rejoining. For both Israel and Saudi Arabia — Iran’s rival in the Great Game in West Asia and North Africa — such a rapprochement would be detrimental to their interests. Thus far, since the Iran-Iraq war, Tehran has conducted a sort of cold war, acting largely through proxies such as the Houthi rebels in Yemen, rather than engaging in a direct conflict. A retaliation to the Fakhrizadeh assassination could change the dynamics of this conflict for the worse and, in the bargain, scupper any meaningful renewal of the nuclear deal.
There are many within the US establishment and the Democratic party who strongly support Israel and want Biden to seek greater concessions from Iran while re-negotiating the deal. Such a move could pay off, or result in strengthening more radical forces within Iran. On the other hand, Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government seems to be on the verge of collapse, and there are protestors on the streets of Jerusalem demanding his resignation. Between Iran and Israel, then, the next few weeks augur a time of uncertainty in the region. New Delhi has thus far managed to maintain strong ties across the Middle East. This is a time to wait and watch, while continuing the policy of bipartisan friendship.