Iran on Wednesday appeared to slow the march to war with Israel and the U.S. following the killing of its chief nuclear scientist last week, saying it would conduct an investigation into the incident that many branded an assassination before determining the culprits and retaliating in kind.
The tempered language from Tehran and its Intelligence Ministry in the aftermath of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh’s fiery demise comes as analysts say the Islamic Republic now seeks to avoid any kind of escalation that would disrupt its plans for more amenable negotiations with the Biden administration after Inauguration Day in seven weeks.
“The intelligence ministry has identified individuals related [to the assassination] and all dimensions are being scrutinized and when everything is certain, the reciprocal reaction will be planned,” Ali Rabiyee, Iranian government spokesman, said on Wednesday, according to state news service Fars.
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Iran’s minister for Intelligence, Mahmoud Alavi, said an investigation began almost immediately after Fakhrizadeh was killed in a shooting and bomb attack against his vehicle near Absard, more than 25 miles east of Tehran.
“Our colleagues have found many clues and they are investigating all aspects,” Alavi said, adding that the ministry will release the results of the investigation after its inquiry. The government will then determine an appropriate response. The officials did not say how long they expect the investigations to take.
It remains unclear who was responsible for Friday’s attack, which involved gunmen as well as the explosion of a truck near Fakhrizadeh’s vehicle that some have attributed to an aerial strike, perhaps by a drone. Iranian leaders almost immediately pinned blame on Israel, saying the U.S. was at least complicit.
Neither Tel Aviv nor Washington has commented publicly on who they believe orchestrated the attack, though an unnamed senior administration official told CNN on Wednesday that Israel was behind the assassination.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, along with the chief of Israeli Mossad, traveled to Saudi Arabia last week in a historic trip where they reportedly met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Saudi ruling prince, Mohammed Bin Salman.
The target and result of the strike matches with the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran and its nuclear program, employed largely through crippling sanctions and diplomatic isolation but also through the targeted killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Iraq in January 2019. Similar attacks and raids against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure took place in 2018 – shortly after President Donald Trump unilaterally left the Iran nuclear deal his predecessor negotiated – and against Iranian nuclear scientists from 2010 to 2012.
Analysts assess that Israel believes its opportunities for bellicose attacks on its foes, chiefly Iran, would become more restricted under the Biden administration and that Iran, too, sees the potential for changes by early next year.
“Although there will be pressure by Iran’s hardliners to retaliate forcefully, Iranian leaders will weigh heavily the potential for Iranian action to interfere with a Biden administration return to engagement and negotiations with Iran,” private intelligence firm The Soufan Center wrote in an analysis note earlier this week. “Stoking new U.S.-Iran conflict might have been the core intent of the Israeli operation against Fakhrizadeh, insofar as Netanyahu strongly opposes the Biden administration’s plans to rejoin the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that the Trump administration abrogated.”
“In order not to derail diplomacy with Biden, Tehran will likely proceed cautiously and slowly with any retaliatory steps,” according to Soufan.
The center also believes that the targeting killing – a covert operation with no immediately apparent state-sponsored perpetrator – represented a less forceful attack against Iran than, for example, an airstrike by military planes against Iranian nuclear facilities as Israel and Washington have previously considered. The Saudi crown prince reportedly balked at Israeli suggestions during the meeting last week that Saudi Arabia endorse an Israeli airstrike for fears of uncontrolled retaliation by Iran.