This third way may breakdown the choice of: war v. quick deal.
Paradoxically, the assassination of Iran nuclear program “father” Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was probably undertaken to avoid war with Iran.
In the eyes of Israeli national security officials, it can be added to the assassination of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force chief Qasem Soleimani in January and the destruction of Iran’s key advance centrifuge nuclear facility at Natanz in July as the key events of 2020 in the standoff with the West, Israel and Sunni Arab states.
Although all three of these assassinations and sabotage actions could have led to an escalation into a regional war, all signs to date are that they were undertaken to reduce the chances of such a war.
Tehran has played a dangerous game in 2019 and 2020.
Refusing to show weakness in the face of US President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, it has shortened its “breakout” time to a nuclear bomb from 12 months to three-to-four months.
Until Soleimani’s killing, and to some lesser extent, even afterward, the ayatollahs have undertaken a variety of military actions against Israel, Saudi Arabia, the US, the United Arab Emirates and some other allies.
All of this was to keep Iran’s two main plans on track: moving toward the threshold of developing a nuclear weapon and expanding its influence throughout the Middle East.
The end point of these two plans is to be the region’s dominant force and to pose an even greater direct threat to Israel on multiple fronts – including Syria, Lebanon and Gaza – and with a nuclear threat.
This is not a scenario that Israel can accept.
Of course, Iran could react massively to the killing of Fakhrizadeh and the whole thing could blow up in the face of Israel and the US.
But Jerusalem has been ready to take military action in Syria, Lebanon and Gaza to roll back the threat.
It has also, according to foreign reports validated by The Jerusalem Post, sometimes alone and sometimes with the US, undertaken major actions to setback the Islamic Republic’s nuclear goals.
There is also pressure on Israel to wreck as much of Tehran’s nuclear program and ambitions as possible before the incoming Biden administration.
The Post has learned from multiple sources that key national security figures are concerned that their hands will be further tied under US President-elect Joe Biden, though no one knows for sure what to expect.
Alternatively, the latest event, the assassination of Fakhrizadeh, may have been a promise that daring and carefully calibrated attacks against Iran will continue, despite Biden’s ascension to the presidency.
The recent series of leaks about a possible broader US attack may have even been misdirection to draw attention away from the attack on Fakhrizadeh.
He may only be one man, and his knowledge is replaceable, but along with Soleimani, and for that matter the recent assassination of al-Qaeda’s number two Abu Muhammad al-Masri, there is a message that there will be a price for proceeding toward a nuclear weapon.
The scenario which Jerusalem wants to avoid is where it feels that Iran is moving toward a nuclear weapon through the old or a new nuclear deal without being checked.
In that case, Israel would likely feel a need for a broad aerial attack on multiple Iranian nuclear facilities, with an unresolved debate as to whether its capabilities would be enough to hit the underground Fordow nuclear facility and the new Natanz underground facility currently being built.
The new Natanz facility is particularly concerning because advanced centrifuges could greatly shorten the “breakout” time to a nuclear bomb without significant warning.
In some eyes, the worst case scenario could justify risking a major Iranian response to the killing of Fakhrizadeh.
Rather than play Iran’s long-term game, Jerusalem hopes that its periodic signals to Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will discourage him from getting too close to that explosive point.
That means Israel may sometimes be playing a dangerous game to try to create a third way which is neither an immediate new nuclear deal nor war.
But if such a dangerous game avoids a much larger and complex operation which would more likely lead to a massive Iranian response (a big “if”), then assassinations and sabotage might end up keeping an uneasy peace (or at least absence of full scale war).