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Israelis overseas on alert following assassination in Iran

What happened: Israeli and Jewish representatives around the world are on high alert over concerns of a revenge attack following the assassination on Friday of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a leading scientist in Iran’s nuclear programme.

  • Israeli security officials are also concerned Iran might try to attack Israeli tourists who are visiting the UAE and Bahrain. However, there currently is no specific intelligence of a planned terror attack on Israeli or Jewish targets.
  • Yesterday, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi visited Northern Command. He told commanders: “I came here to evaluate the current state of security, with an emphasis on the Iranian entrenchment in Syria. Our message is clear: we will continue to act as vigorously as necessary against the Iranian entrenchment in Syria, and we will remain fully prepared against any manifestation of aggression against us.” The IDF has not changed its routine operations or troop deployments along the borders considering the assassination in Iran last week.
  • According to the Iranian Fars News Agency, the assassination was done using an automatic machine gun operated with a remote control, mounted on a truck which self-destructed after the attack and not with gunmen on the ground.
  • Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, the chief of staff for Iran’s armed forces, said: “We will not rest until we track down and take revenge on those responsible for the assassination of martyr Fakhrizadeh.”
  • According to the New York Times, one American official along with two other intelligence officials said that Israel was behind the attack on the scientist.
  • Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told Sky News, “We are concerned about the situation in Iran and the wider region we do want to see de-escalation of tension… I would say that we stick to the rule of international humanitarian law which is very clear against targeting civilians.”
  • In addition, Syrian media reported that another senior member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was killed by a drone strike in the Syrian town of Al Qaim close to the north-eastern border with Iraq on Sunday.

Context: Two years ago, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed that Mossad had stolen the Iranian nuclear archives, he said “remember that name, Fakhrizadeh,” explaining that he was the head of Iran’s nuclear weapons programme.

  • The Mossad found documents that proved Iran had been deceiving the world in their effort to build a nuclear bomb. Furthermore, Netanyahu claimed that Fakhrizadeh continued, and never stopped, serving as head of Iran’s secret military nuclear programme. For years, the Iranians have refused to allow IAEA inspectors in Vienna to meet with him.
  • Some documents were handwritten instructions by Fakhrizadeh, which focused on weaponisation of a nuclear warhead.
  • Declassified documents show that in 2008 the CIA also knew he was trying to build a nuclear warhead for an inter-continental ballistic missile.
  • Though some have questioned the legality of the strike, US and Israel legal experts note that as Fakhrizadeh served in the dual role as head of a nuclear weapons programme and a Brig. Gen. in the IRGC and therefore he was a legitimate target.
  • The strike is part of a pattern of targeted killing operating inside Iran. In August, al-Qaeda’s number two, Abu Mohammed al-al-Masri and his daughter, were killed in a similar operation while living under a false alias in Iran. A decade ago, four Iranian nuclear scientists were killed by assassins on motorbikes.
  • Last week, three Iranians were released by Thailand as part of a prisoner swap, after they were arrested in 2012 for trying to attack the Israeli embassy in Bangkok. They were part of a series of attempts to target Israeli diplomatic missions across the world in response to the assassinations of the Iranian nuclear scientists.

Israeli analysts:

  • Alex Fishman: “Syrian President Bashar Assad will try his hardest to prevent Iran from taking retaliatory action against Israel from within his borders. For two years, Assad has been signalling to the Iranians that the price his regime is paying for cooperating with Iran might be too dear.”
  • Alex Fishman: “While Jerusalem knows there is not one single action it can take to decimate Iran’s entire nuclear programme, Tehran also knows there is not one element of that programme that is immune to Israel’s attempts to thwart it. This includes physical strikes and cyber-attacks on nuclear facilities, as well as targeting its human factor – the scientists, managers and aides.”
  • Shimrit Meir: “If people on Biden’s national security team were planning about engaging in as quiet a process as possible, such as having both sides announce a return to the JCPOA, lifting all the nuclear-related sanctions and only then beginning negotiations over improvements, Israel has now signalled that that won’t pass, at least not without putting up a fight.”
  • Shimrit Meir: “The Israeli decision to bring this incident out into the open, was designed to be an overt operation. Its goal was about more than just ridding the world of a certain individual, important as he may have been. Its goal was to show that if Israel has no choice and it has to fight the war of 2015 all over again, as exhausting as that may be, Israel will re-enter the ring to do so.“
  • Ehud Yaari: “Iran’s nuclear programme will continue to develop, even in the absence of Fakhrizadeh. The programme employs thousands of engineers and technicians, all of whom are his students, and their path forward has already been set. One option they have would be to take a demonstrative step towards upping the pace [of nuclear development] – by upping the level of uranium enrichment, for example, or as the parliament in Tehran is demanding by pulling Iran out of the ‘additional protocol’ of the Treaty for the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. From their perspective that could be a fair response in the spirit of Fakhrizadeh’s legacy.”
  • Ronen Bergman: “It is not at all certain that the Iranians will respond… they are waiting for January, when they hope they will be able to open negotiations with Biden in order to renew their flow of money that has been frozen around the world.”

Looking ahead:  The retaliatory strike poses a serious dilemma for Iran. There is a groundswell of support in Iran to respond. However, the Iranians are also afraid that Israel could use their retaliation as a pretext for a more substantial attack.

  • An escalation in violence would make it harder for US President-elect Joe Biden to restart talks with Iran.

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