The funeral of Iran’s leading nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, is done. Iran’s leaders are now debating how to respond and have promised revenge. Meanwhile, Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei has declared that talks are “not possible,” but it’s still possible Iran has not shut the door to negotiations with European and even American officials.
Khamenei will ultimately resolve this debate. He knows that with nothing to lose, President Trump would probably welcome any Iranian response that could justify a U.S. military attack during the last weeks of his slash and burn presidency. But Iran’s leaders are not careless or stupid. As President Hassan Rouhani put it, "The nation of Iran is smarter than to fall in the trap of the conspiracy set by the Zionists.”
Raging and debating
The subtext of Rouhani’s statement is barely sub: his message is that Iran should proceed cautiously. Referring to the outgoing U.S. administration, three days after Fakhrizadeh’s killing he said that Trump’s “pressure era is coming to an end and the global conditions are changing.”
Moreover, because the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was incorporated into U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, Rouhani asserted that “If the U.S. meets its commitments under Resolution 2231…we will fulfill ours under the JCPOA.”
Foreign Secretary Javad Zarif outlined a similar argument on November 18, saying the “maximum pressure” campaign had failed. He staked out this position with one eye on the June 2021 presidential elections. Isolated by international events and outflanked by hardliners, the reformists have little to lose by calling for a path back to diplomacy. Thus in recent months, veteran reformists have argued for responding positively but carefully to any bid by Europe and the new Biden administration to reopen talks on the JCPOA.
In sharp contrast, in the weeks prior to Fakhrizadeh’s murder, the hard-liners rejected calls for engagement. Now, in the wake of the assassination and the deep embarrassment that this brazen attack has caused to Iran’s security officials, the hardliners seemingly have reason to push for some kind of wider confrontation with the outgoing administration, particularly given Khamanei’s promise that Iran will seek “vengeance.”
But Iranian military leaders have also said that “the aggressor will definitely be punished but not on the playing field he defines,” thus implying that military retaliation is not eminent and perhaps not even inevitable. As always, hardliners want to sustain a heroic policy of “resistance” while avoiding the strategic and security costs that could come from their quest to hammer one final nail into the coffin of diplomacy.
A new strategic landscape
Still, hardliners may find it difficult to maintain this tricky line in a region whose strategic landscape has shifted in ways that would appear to favor Iran’s regional and global rivals. The most dramatic example of this change is the recently signed bilateral normalization agreements between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain.
Yet these changes will not give Iran’s rivals the means and impetus to embrace a U.S. military campaign against Iran, or even a more limited or targeted use of military force. Indeed, the region’s shifting strategic sands might encourage Riyadh and the UAE to give diplomacy a chance. Their challenge is to strike a balance between leveraging the emerging entente between Israel and Arab Gulf states and the parallel need to work with a new U.S. administration, one that will view any engagement with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, with skepticism.
In an apparent effort to walk this fine line MBS held a “secret” meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on November 23. While Saudi leaders subsequently denied the rendezvous — and signaled that they would not formalize relations with Israel — the meeting underscored Riyadh’s desire to sustain its ties with Israel and in so doing, signal the two countries common desire to limit Iran’s influence.
At the same time Riyadh has indicated its willingness to end the Qatar embargo, a position the new Biden administration will welcome. Moreover, Saudi leaders have telegraphed their desire to begin finding an exit strategy from Yemen. Although for now, Riyadh is only calling for a cease fire and the creation of a buffer zone, changes that will help ease what promises to be a complicated U.S.-Saudi relationship under Biden.
Beyond these shifts is the simple fact that Arab Gulf leaders are counting on deterrence to prevent an outbreak of U.S.-Iran hostilities, a point underscored by the UAE’s condemnation of Fakhrizadeh’s murder as a “threat to peace.” If the Biden administration, with the support of Europe, Russia, and China, pushes to renew talks on the JCPOA, as Biden has said he wants to do, Saudi and Emirati leaders will move to ensure that their voices are heard in any new negotiations, a scenario that is unlikely if they act as spoilers.
The logic of diplomacy
Diplomacy could also create opportunities for Iran’s beleaguered reformists and their two leading allies in government — Zarif and Rouhani. With presidential elections coming up in June, these two men are probably wagering that renewed talks could give reformists one last chance to make their mark.
While their hardline rivals dominate the political arena, their path forward is not easy. They can replace (but not replicate) their martyred scientist. But reconstituting the nuclear weapons program that U.S. intelligence agencies concluded “with high confidence” Iran had abandoned in 2003 will constitute a major shift in Iran’s strategic thinking.
Thus far, Tehran has selectively breached the JCPOA in the hope of using its enhanced enrichment capacity as a bargaining chip in any new talks — a tactic that Iranian hardline MPs are pushing to intensify but that Rouhani’s government has thus far opposed. Rouhani’s goal is to secure what Iran needs most: ending nuclear related sanctions and reviving oil exports. To abandon this strategy in favor of creating a robust nuclear weapons capacity would be perilous because such a move would invite the very military escalation all sides have thus far tried to dodge.
Perhaps seeking to avoid such an escalation and enhance Iran’s diplomatic position, Iran’s U.N. ambassador has demanded that the Security Council “strongly condemn this inhumane terrorist act and take necessary measures against its perpetrators.” The United States will block any such action. Still, the fact that a spokesman for U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres condemned Fakhrizadeh’s assassination — and that Tehran has appealed for U.N. action — suggests that Iranian leaders recognize that diplomacy should remain an important part of Iran’s overall strategy.
Thus it not surprising that five days after Fakhrizadeh’s assassination Zarif insisted that "we don't want to start a friendship,” with the new administration, “but we want to reduce unnecessary tension and enmity.”
Much will depend on what position the Supreme Leader adopts, and how the new U.S. administration reacts to whatever actions Tehran takes to settle scores. But if Fakhrizadeh’s murder has magnified these hazards, it has also revealed a narrowing field of options for all the key protagonists. Faced by a transforming strategic landscape, Iranian leaders might still choose the possible benefits of a re-negotiated deal over the risks of slipping into war.