Iranian officials and regime supporters responded to the killing of Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, widely regarded as the 'father' of Iran's military nuclear program, with a public outpouring of fury. Many of the responses sought to achieve the difficult rhetorical task of belittling the achievement of Iran's enemies, while at the same time stressing the magnitude of the loss. All promised vengeance.
Esmail Ghaani, commander of the Qods Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, declared, in a statement translated from Farsi by the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, that 'The enemy is not manly enough to fight a battle with Iran directly. The demise of Israel is near and these are the last tantrums of Israel. Revenge for Fakhrizadeh's blood is coming, and it will be with the solidarity of the Iranian forces with all their formations."
Tasnim, a news website associated with the IRGC, asserted that "If you want to stop the rabid dog, you have to confront him. or he will attack you again. Missiles, as Iran's main response option, can hit any part of Israel from the depths of the country... In addition to the missile option, the Islamic Republic has other opportunities ahead of it, including Iran's presence near the borders of the occupied territories in Syria. In Lebanon, too, Hezbollah is at its best as a powerful arm of the Islamic Republic."
Hussein Salami, commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, said, meanwhile, that "revenge and severe punishment" for the perpetrators of the assassination "is on the agenda." (All translations: MECRA).
The Iranian intention to seek retribution is clear. But what form is Iran's response likely to take?
Tehran possesses an extensive infrastructure of paramilitary client organizations across the Middle East.
Tehran possesses an extensive infrastructure of paramilitary client organizations across the Middle East, one or another of which might be activated to strike at Israel. Iran also has a extensive global network, with a long history of terror attacks on Israeli, Jewish and other targets. Retribution will almost certainly come from one or other of these possibilities. A conventional response from the Iranian state forces, which would amount to a declaration of war, is unlikely. Israeli and Jewish security structures are consequently in a state of high alert globally.
Yet the situation facing Iran is not a simple one. With regard to paramilitary infrastructures close to Israel's borders: Lebanese Hezbollah today faces a complex political situation. The Lebanese economy and currency are in free fall. The repair bill for the destruction wrought by the Ammonium Nitrate explosion in August is estimated at $15 billion. 300,000 people were made homeless by it. And Hezbollah is no longer an unseen paramilitary client of Iran. Rather, it is a large political-military bureaucracy which dominates the Lebanese parliament and the process of government formation. Any act of violence emanating from this corner is certain to produce very heavy Israeli retribution, and there is a very visible and very extensive target bank.
With regard to Syria, again, Iranian capabilities are extensive and well-documented. But recent events once more indicate that Israel has domination of the intelligence picture with regard to Syria, and extensive knowledge regarding Iranian moves. Regional media reports on the killing of an additional IRGC commander close to the Iraq-Syria border on Saturday evening, as he sought to supervise the transport of weapons across the border, appear to offer further proof of this. The recent foiling of an attempt to place an explosive device at the border fence demonstrates Iran and Hezbollah's extensive presence and infrastructure close to the border, but also Israel's knowledge of it.
Broader strategic questions are again relevant here. Iran is engaged in a long term strategic effort in Syria. The evidence suggests that while Israel has largely succeeded in disrupting and dismantling efforts to deploy weapons systems in the country, the human infrastructure of recruitment and organized support below has been built and extends to the border. This infrastructure, like Lebanese Hezbollah, is a strategic project which is unlikely to be placed at risk by using it as a platform for a retaliation operation which would certainly bring down further retribution.
Similarly, Iran possesses an extensive structure of client militias in Iraq, and with missiles, including the Fateh-110 and Zulfiqar systems deployed in the west of the country, Israel is within range. But again, the deployment in Iraq is intended for strategic purposes – to broaden Iran's options for retaliation in the event of an all out war or an attack on Iranian facilities in Iran itself, and to secure political domination of the Iraqi state for Iranian purposes.
This leaves two remaining areas from where the record suggests retaliation is more likely to come: the Ansar Allah/Houthi movement in Yemen, or the global IRGC/Hezbollah terror infrastructure.
Re the former, Iran has found it useful in the past when engaged in high profile action against other states to use the Houthis as a convenient smokescreen. Most famously, the Houthis implausibly claimed early responsibility for the attacks on Saudi oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khureis on September 14, 2019. It is not unimaginable that the Yemeni guerrillas, or at least their name-tag, could be utilized by the IRGC in launching ordnance at Israel.
The most likely route for Iran's retaliation, however, remains the global terror network maintained by the IRGC in close cooperation with Lebanese Hezbollah. The record shows that in the past, Iran has chosen this route in responding to the killings of senior officials of its own or of its proxies. Thus, Tehran responded to Israel's killing of Lebanese Hezbollah leader Abbas Mussawi in 1992 by striking at the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in the same year, and then at the AMIA community center in the same city in 1994.
Similarly, IRGC/ Hezbollah's international networks have been mobilized in efforts to seek retribution for the killing of Hezbollah military mastermind Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus in 2008. Here, there have been a string of failures, and this killing remains an open matter for the movement. The Burgas bombing July 18, 2012, in which five Israeli tourists were killed, is not considered to constitute an act of significant magnitude to close this account.
So the record, and political and strategic realities make the international terror track the most likely avenue for Iran's revenge for Fakhrizadeh's killing. Here too, however, political considerations apply. With a new, and probably more reconciliatory US Administration about to take office, Iran may well judge it prudent to avoid any hasty response. The prospect of sanctions relief, and the end of 'Maximum pressure' may be found to be enough to justify silence, for now.
Hossein Dehghan the influential former minister of defense, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's adviser in the defense industry said following the Fakhrizadeh killing that "while the call for revenge is legitimate, Iran will act in a smart way and won't leave the enemies aggression unanswered. We'll determine when and where to respond."
It may therefore well be that no rapid response to Fakhrizadeh's killing is forthcoming. The alert in Israel and in Israeli and Jewish facilities worldwide is essential, of course. But in assessing such matters, the political and strategic contexts, and past practice should not be ignored. It is also worth remembering the quote often attributed to Charles De Gaulle, according to which "the graveyards are filled with indispensable men."
Jonathan Spyer is a Ginsburg/Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.