Iran – provocation and the prospect of war

28th November 2020

Assassination scene – the car of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh after the attack

The assassination yesterday of top Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh is widely believed to have been the work of the Israeli secret service, Mossad.  Having the means, motive and finding the opportunity is part of the Mossad modus operandi.  The long standing hostility towards Iran of the Israeli regime, particularly the faction supporting Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been well documented and the danger of further military intervention by the Israelis long feared in the Middle East.

The timing of this particular act is clearly linked to the change in the administration in the United States.  Israel has had no stronger supporter than President Donald Trump in recent years and it is feared that Joe Biden will take a more consensual line towards Iran than the openly provocative positions taken by Trump.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), widely known as the Iran nuclear deal, agreed between the Western powers, including the United States, and the Islamic Republic of Iran in 2015 was one of the first foreign policy casualties of the Donald Trump presidency.  Since the United States’ withdrawal from the JCPOA, in May 2018, a period of exacerbated uncertainty has existed in relations between the two countries and across the Middle East.   

The United States has used the demonisation of the Islamic Republic as cover for changing the balance of forces in the Middle East, in particular the negotiation of agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to recognise and trade with Israel.  At a stroke Trump has blown apart the fragile alliance of Arab states supporting the rights of Palestinians to self determination, in opposition to the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.

However, the Biden/Harris ticket, while remaining unwavering in US foreign policy terms in its support for Israel, is unlikely to be quite as hostile towards Iran.  As Vice-President to Barack Obama, Biden was part of the administration which orchestrated the Iran nuclear deal and is unlikely to view it in terms as hostile as Donald Trump.

The ongoing struggle to control the COVID-19 coronavirus will be a major priority for a Biden administration.  With the US still the world leader in the death count from the disease, Biden is unlikely to want to risk body bags returning from an unnecessary conflict in the Middle East.  The regime in Iran may be many things but it would not be a pushover militarily.

The prospect of normalising relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel and with it the possibility of military action against Iran may not be far away.  As well as the assassination of Fakhrizadeh the dangers are underlined by the recent mission of two US B52 bombers which recently conducted a surprise, round-trip to the Persian Gulf area allegedly “to deter aggression and reassure U.S. partners and allies”.

With just under two months left in office there remains the danger that Trump, either directly or through one of the US regional proxies, will take a foreign policy initiative in the Middle East that will damage the chances of a new administration being able to chart a less provocative course.

For the people of Iran the situation remains bleak.  Widespread protests against economic mismanagement and corruption continue.  The tightening of economic sanctions by the Trump administration has only served to make what was already a bad situation for the Iranian people even worse.  The inability to trade major commodities, oil in particular, has plunged the economy into near hyper-inflation with the associated redundancies, job insecurity and impoverishment which inevitably follows.

The economic crisis inside Iran is also affecting the capacity of the regime to continue its extraterritorial military activities in the Middle East (especially in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon) and with it, the financial and moral influence to continue “exporting Islamic revolution”.  

There are reports that the Russian government has raised the issue with the regime in Iran of removing its military forces and ceasing its operations in Syria. Since 2011, the regime has annually spent between $5bn and $11bn in Syria in pursuit of its strategic plans. Russia envisages a different future model for Syria to that of the theocratic regime in Iran.

The progress of the much debated 25-year strategic agreement between Iran and China is also likely to be affected by other regional influences with Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, recently proposing the formation of a forum in the Middle East to foster multilateral engagements with the “equal participation of all stakeholders.”

As ever in the Middle East there are many players with conflicting interests and the balance of forces can easily be tipped by the slightest action.  The question has to be asked, in whose interest is the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh?  It is certainly not in the interests of the Iranian people who are only likely to suffer further from economic hardship or, worse still, military intervention.

A destabilised Iran may well suit the agenda of the neo-con backers of Donald Trump and potentially reinforces Israel as the region’s strong man.  How Iran reacts, and whether the hardliners in Tehran gain the upper hand, could well determine whether there is any prospect for peace in the short term or whether the people of the Middle East face a further round of conflict.

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