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The assassination of Iranian nuclear program scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh marks another severe attack on Iranian soil. It also poses a dilemma for Iran’s ruling elite.

Leadup to the Hit on Fakhrizadeh

Last Friday’s deed bears the signature of the Israeli secret service Mossad and could lead to a military exchange of blows between the United States and Iran shortly before the end of President Donald Trump’s term in office.

Just the week before last, the outgoing US president discussed possibilities of bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities with close confidantes. Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Chief of Staff Mark Milley reportedly advised against it.

Preparing for Possible Attacks on Iran

Nonetheless, the Pentagon demonstratively launched two B-52 bombers capable of dropping atomic bombs from the Air Force Base in North Dakota on a non-stop flight to the Gulf. According to local media reports, the Israeli army received instructions to prepare for possible retaliatory strikes in Tehran as the Iranian leadership swears vengeance.

Objectively speaking, 2020 was a year of spectacular embarrassment for Iran and its security apparatus. On January 3, a US drone murdered the general of the Al-Quds Foreign Brigade Qasem Soleimani near Baghdad International Airport. In July, in the middle of the heavily guarded Natanz nuclear facility, a massive explosion destroyed the nuclear program’s technical heart, a hall of valuable machines with which Iran assembles and tests its latest uranium high-performance centrifuges.

Mysterious fires and explosions also occurred in other parts of the Islamic Republic during the summer. In Shiraz and Isfahan, the power plants burned one after the other, and a chemical plant caught fire in the port city of Mahshahr. After a violent detonation, all that remained of a hospital in northern Tehran was a ruin in which 19 people died. Shortly thereafter, a widely visible fireball stood over Parchin’s military area near the capital, where ballistic missiles are produced.

Iran’s Government is Faced With a Deep Dilemma

This accumulation of serious attacks and the assassination of Fakhrizadeh presents the deeply divided power elite of the Islamic Republic with a political dilemma. With Soleimani, Iran lost her best general, with Fakhrizadeh it lost its most crucial nuclear scientist. Accordingly, the hardliners are pushing for a quick and hard answer. Staying put could only invite further attacks, the mullahs may decide.

However, with an Iranian commando operation or even an open armed conflict, the hardliners at home risk – at best – further economic decline and new internal unrest, as most recently a year ago in November 2019. At that time, hundreds of thousands took to the streets, the worst upheaval of the regime since the revolution of 1979. Tehran’s rulers reacted with brutal repression. The security forces opened fire in numerous places, between 300 and 1,500 people died.

On the other hand, the worst-case scenario is a regime that gets obliterated by Israeli and US forces for any form of retaliation.

The moderates around President Hassan Rouhani, on the other hand, know that only if Iran can put up with this humiliation will there be a chance after Joe Biden’s inauguration for a return to the nuclear treaty and the much-needed easing of sanctions.

“The period from today to the day Trump leaves the White House is the most dangerous for Iran,” tweeted Mohammad-Hossein Khoshvaght, a former employee of moderate President Mohammed Khoshvaght.

For Rouhani, the 2015 nuclear deal was the most significant diplomatic success of his presidency until Trump withdrew from the agreement in May 2018 and reactivated the sanctions. Rouhani’s term of office ends in 2021, and his successor will be elected on June 18. However, another moderate candidate would only have a chance if there are first rays of hope in relation to America under Biden.