Iran's "strategic patience" upsets the Saudi-Israeli alliance

While Saudi Arabia and Israel favour strikes against the Iranian regime, the new US administration led by US President-elect Joe Biden might usher in a more diplomatic approach. That might explain why Tehran failed to react to the killing of its official Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

Following the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a senior official of Iran’s nuclear program, everyone expected a response from Tehran. Six days later, a bill was passed in parliament and presented to the Guardian Council that seeks to overcome the nuclear restrictions and prevent unannounced inspections from the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Tehran’s priority appears to be finding the attackers, correcting intelligence failures before using diplomacy as a means for retaliation. This strategy might have sparked anger amongst the radical-conservative wing of the regime, which expected a deterrent use of force and even suggested targeting the Israeli port of Haifa. Yet the main disappointment had to do with Saudi media.

Tariq al-Homayed from the daily newspaper Okaz slammed the countries that condemned the assassination, such as Turkey and Qatar. “Fakhrizadeh was not working on the COVID-19 vaccination; he was the father of the atomic bomb… The deceased had planned a bomb. How can the death of someone who dedicated his life to a diabolical regime be condemned?” the columnist wrote.

According to Iranian officials, Fakhrizadeh’s latest project was the development of a local COVID-19 test kit. The Office of the Iranian President shared photos of Fakhrizadeh, after his death, being awarded a medal for his contribution to the nuclear deal (JCPOA). This was Fakhrizadeh’s portrait from Iran’s point of view. Besides, one should not forget that while Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea, all of whom launched their nuclear programme at the same time as Iran, achieved their own respective atomic bombs, while Iran hasn’t. In 2003, the CIA had always confirmed that Iran had ended its efforts to develop nuclear weapons.

Abdullah bin Bajad from the Saudi paper Asharq Al-Awsat stated that ““Fakhrizadeh was not a civilian,” adding, “over the past 40 years, the Iranian regime has used terrorism and assassinations against its opponents at home and abroad. The regime’s method of terrorism and assassination has boomeranged on it.”

Nedim Kuteyş from Asharq Al-Awsat also lambasted former CIA Director John Brennan who warned that the assassination could trigger a regional conflict. “Iran did not go beyond a series of dramatic reactions in Iraq after the assassination of Qasem Soleimani. Iran is exhausted, weak and humiliated,” he wrote.

In short, Saudi columnists all favour strikes against Iran and assert that war would not erupt as a result. 

The US has been conducting secret operations to change the regime in Iran for forty years. The Americans know Iran better than anyone else. Saudi columnists, on the other hand, are merely repeating King Abdullah’s suggestion to George W. Bush of “cutting off the head of the snake while it is still possible.’” The Saudi Kingdom would like to see the US and Israel wage war against Iran whilst they could sponsor it, in the same way they funded Saddam Hussein’s war against Iran for eight years.

Had Iran blatantly retaliated and accused the US, Saudi columnists would have thoroughly enjoyed fanning the flames from afar. Obviously, they fail to mention that that Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu met with Crown Prince Mohammed Ben Salman (MBS) in the Saudi city of Neom just before the assassination. Whether or not Riyadh was involved in this assassination, Israel has set up a clever trap for the Saudi Kingdom.

Israel’s normalized ties with the Gulf countries will not be restricted only to diplomacy. The Gulf countries will become bases for recruitment, training, guidance and planning for operations against Iran. The same applies to Azerbaijan which has bought an abundance of weapons from Israel and opened its doors to Mossad.

Whilst it achieves geographic proximity with Iran, Israel upends the rules of the game. As part of Trump’s maximum pressure policies, Iran’s oil revenues were targeted. Iran, in turn, showed its neighbors how it could respond through covert operations conducted in 2019. Right after Netanyahu’s visit to the Saudi project city Neom on November 22, Houthis hit Aramco facilities in Jeddah. This can be interpreted as a warning from Iran.

The Saudis are of course aware of the danger. Otherwise, they would have long shaken hands with Netanyahu. Today, they are proceeding cautiously and warily. When former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo secretly visited Riyadh in 2014, it was a huge event.   

Meanwhile, since the Saudis and their allies are aware of the risks involved by their current strategy, they do no want US President-elect Joe Biden to deviate from the US’ prevailing policy. Israel is running the show and carries on with its propaganda according to which all Iran is behind the woes of Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon.

According to Middle East Eye, Netanyahu tried to persuade MBS to support an attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities. But the Prince was reluctant. One reason for that could be that the recent attacks on Saudi oil targets as warning messages from Iran. Another reason could be his doubts surrounding the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden.

Had this proposal come two years ago, the crown prince might not have been so reluctant. An important factor was that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not commit either way while Netanyahu advocated strikes against Iran.

According to sources of mine, the crown prince’s main concern is Biden. He feels like the new administration would be hostile towards him and pursue him for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. As is stated in Bob Woodward’s book “Rage,” Trump bragged to Woodward in the following way: “I saved his ass. I was able to get Congress to leave him alone. I was able to get them to stop.”

Iran is also going through a rough patch. It has too many dilemmas. The radical conservative wing believes that unless deterrence is built, neither Israel’s attacks in Syria or Iraq nor the assassinations/sabotages within Iran will cease. The conservative-reformist wing represented by President Hassan Rouhani opts to seek opportunities for changes with Biden.

In fact, it was Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the top decision maker, who introduced the “strategic patience” concept, instead of “total resistance.” He was also the one who approved the nuclear talks.

If Esmail Qaani, the commander of the Quds Force in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps went to Baghdad and told al-Hashd ash-Sha’bi “not to attack American forces until Trump is gone, this was also as part of the “strategic patience.” After all, Iran could still harm the US and its allies through proxy forces in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Palestine and even Afghanistan. This would automatically stop Israel. 

Iran is in a difficult situation due to its weakness in intelligence with regards to foreign-operated attacks – whereas its intelligence is seamlessly keen in monitoring and removing opponents – as well as because of a lack of cooperation between its cooperation, a loss of reflex that causes domestic and international failures, an economic collapse and internal tensions that stem from the tyranny of the regime.

Yet this does not mean that Iran has lost its capacity to conduct games in the Middle East nor that it is no longer a threatening power. According to Middle East Eye, last weekend, Iran told Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed “We will hold you responsible for the assassination of Fakhrizadeh.” The UAE Foreign Ministry condemned the assassination on Sunday evening, warning it could “further fuel conflict in the region.” Then Bahrain condemned the killing.

Trump’s strategy helped radical conservatives to grow in Iran. This year, out of the 291 seats in the parliament, 221 went to them. What is more, the presidential elections in June 2021 showed that the chances of the reformists have been shattered. This means that while Biden and the US will be adopting a softer stance, they will need to face hard-liners in Iran who regard talks with the West as useless.

To them, the difference between Republicans and Democrats is akin to that between Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola. Some even consider the Democrats more devious and dangerous. It might not be so easy to open the way for negotiations without serious steps such as lifting the sanctions, returning unconditionally to the JCPOA, removing the Revolutionary Guards from the list of terrorist organizations.

The actors in Soleymani’s murder were known and Iran retaliated by launching 50 missiles against US bases. This time, there are footprints of the perpetrator though he does not acknowledge it. Iran has adopted a different stance with regards to the Fakhrizadeh assassination, taking into account the transition period in the US and avoiding a possible war. The assassination will most likely become an important card in negotiations with Biden.

In his opinion piece in CNN.com on September 13, Biden wrote, “If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations.” He said they would lift the sanctions imposed by Trump. In his interview with Thomas Friedman in the New York Times earlier this week, he was asked whether he stood by his views on the Iran nuclear deal that he articulated in his September 13 essay on CNN.com. Biden answered, “It’s going to be hard, but yeah.” But Biden’s team wants to include Iran’s Arab neighbours into the negotiations. Neighbours this time will be able to directly impose their conditions: Iran should keep its hands off Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen and, stop enriching uranium and end the ballistic missile program.

Though Iran has been under intense pressure for the past three years, it has not complied. This will naturally be a difficult process. However, Biden emphasizes that some time needs to pass before these tough chapters can be handled, and for this to happen, the nuclear program is the key issue.

The main logic in this stance is that if there are no talks and the process shifts into a conflict zone, Iran would return to the nuclear arms program it had abandoned years ago, this will make other countries in the region want to race to make their atomic bombs. Thus, the balance of terror that would end Israel’s immunity would be established.

The Democrats cannot say this openly but this is the situation.