27 September 2023

Deadly deadline: Last chance for Israeli assassinations?

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Lindsay Hughes* says Israel likely fears a Biden Administration will hinder its freedom to act against Iran and may be trying to get in as many strikes as possible while Donald Trump remains US President.

United States President, Donald Trump has, arguably, supported Israel more than any of his predecessors.

He travelled to Israel on his first foreign trip, recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the US embassy there; he increased military aid and pulled the US out of the flawed Iran nuclear deal.

President Trump has backed Israel’s right to defend itself in Gaza, declared that Jewish settlements on the West Bank are not illegal and did not object when Israel’s Minister of Defence, Naftali Bennett said that a new Jewish neighbourhood would be created in Hebron.

It is not surprising, then, that it was in Israel’s interest that Mr Trump be returned to office.

In the event, Mr Trump lost and Joe Biden will succeed him.

Mr Biden has stated that he would return to the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

This has led to a senior Israeli politician, Tzachi Hanegbi, saying such a move would force Israel into a war with Iran.

It is probable the Ayatollahs in Tehran are pleased with Mr Biden’s victory.

It is equally probable that they are displeased with two assassinations that have taken place in Tehran and its immediate surroundings.

The first was that of Abu Mohammed al-Masri (real name Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah), a high-ranking Al Qaeda member and a distant in-law of Osama bin Laden.

Mr al-Masri was assassinated on the street in Tehran on 7 August.

Iran initially reported that two gunmen on a motorcycle had fired shots into a car that was being driven by a Lebanese Professor of History, Habib Daoud, and his 27-year-old daughter, Maryam.

It was soon revealed, however, that the innocuous Professor Daoud was, in fact, none other than al Qaeda’s number two, al-Masri, a fact that Iran has continued to deny.

It is unsurprising that Iran tried to cover up his identity.

It would not do for a regime that says it is not a terrorist organisation or, at least, abjures terrorism, to reveal that it had harboured a wanted terrorist.

More importantly, the Shi’a Ayatollahs could not afford to be seen to be collaborating with a Sunni terrorist because it would lend to the perception that Iran truly was a propagator of terrorism, as its critics allege.

It also shows that Israel, whose Mossad agents most likely carried out the assassination, is able to strike, almost at will, in Tehran.

That ability would underline Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu’s earlier comment to Iran: “We know everything you’re doing.”

It is embarrassing to Tehran to have to acknowledge, even tacitly, that Mr Netanyahu is correct in his assessment and that Israel is able to carry out an assassination in Tehran itself.

It would be unlikely that an operation of the magnitude of the one that killed Mr al-Masri would have occurred without Washington’s permission, specifically that of Mr Trump.

More recently, Iranian nuclear physicist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh (pictured), the chief of Iran’s nuclear program, was assassinated in an ambush near Tehran.

Mr Fakhrizadeh was shot by unknown assailants while driving and his vehicle blown up, but Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that the assassination bore all the hallmarks of Israeli agents.

The assassination of Mr Fakhrizadeh would have been months in the planning and also took place during Mr Trump’s tenure.

It is equally likely that it occurred with the blessing of Saudi Arabia and was given the green light to proceed during the meeting between US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and Mr Netanyahu during their meeting in Neom.

Mr Netanyahu’s presence at the meeting was not officially disclosed but is an open secret.

If Mr Biden holds true to his stated policy approach to Iran and re-enters the JCPOA, it is unlikely that he would allow Israel to carry out assassinations against Iranian personnel.

Israel knows, therefore, that it has to achieve as many strikes against Iran as it can while Mr Trump remains in office.

*Lindsay Hughes is a senior research analyst with the Indo-Pacific Research Program.

This article first appeared on the Future Directions website.

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