An errant Syrian surface-to-air missile caused alarm inside of Israel last night when it missed its intended target (an Israeli warplane apparently) and continued flying south into Israel and approached Dimona, the location of Israel’s nuclear reactor. The missile, an SA-5 Gammon did not damage the reactor and exploded 30 km away. Israeli air and anti-missile defenses attempted to engage the missile but were unsuccessful. Air raid sirens were heard across southern Israel. Shortly after the missile landed, Israel launched attacks against the SA-5 sites around Damascus. Syria’s state news agency claimed Syrian air defense forces intercepted Israeli rockets over the suburbs of Damascus “and downed most of them.” The incident has sparked the most significant round of violence between Israel and Syria in years. The initial Israeli air attacks, which triggered the SA-5 launch, were targeting Iranian assets which could be used for a potential attack against Israel.
The incident comes at a point of considerable tension between Israel and Iran, who are in the midst of a tit-for-tat shadow war. As negotiations aimed at bringing the United States back on board the JCPOA continue, there is concern that last night’s event will have an adverse effect on that effort. Most likely it will not. Sources close to those negotiations claim the US and Iran are nearing a diplomatic breakthrough.
As for the matter of the SA-5, there was initial concern that Iran had played a hand in it somehow. More than likely this isn’t the case. The missile is a long-range SAM, perfectly capable of reaching the area around Dimona from southern Syria. Israel does take the possibility of Iranian action against its reactor seriously though. It has recently bolstered the air defenses around Dimona to better protect the area from an Iranian drone or missile attack.
The Chinese government publicly stated today its belief that events surrounding Iran’s nuclear program have reached a “critical point” and only the easing of US economic sanctions will end the present stalemate. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin made the statement just one day after Iran officially began restricting international inspections of its nuclear facilities. The Iranian move is intended to pressure European nations and the United States into ending the heavy economic sanctions now in place, and eventually restoring the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The United States removed itself from that agreement, commonly referred to as the Iran nuclear deal, in May 2018. The US withdrawal from JCOPA, followed by the application of harsh economic sanctions, led to severe economic consequences for Iran.
With a new administration now in Washington, there’s been hope that the deal can be resurrected. So far, neither side has been willing to make the first move. Tehran is demanding that the sanctions be lifted before serious talks begin and the United States wants full compliance from Iran before any future move towards restarting the deal begin. This is the stalemate Wang Wenbin was referring to in his comments.
China has long favored a US return to the JCPOA as well as Iranian compliance. Salvaging the 2015 deal would serve Chinese interests in the region well. Beijing and Tehran are reportedly close to finalizing a 25 year trade and military agreement that will see China invest $400 billion into Iran’s communication, transport and infrastructure areas in exchange for a deeply discounted supply of Iranian oil. If these are actually the terms of the agreement then it’s in China’s interest to see the nuclear deal return to its original form. The problem is that the terms of the trade and military agreement between Iran and China have become something of an urban legend in the Middle East. The terms and conditions of the agreement might’ve been exaggerated quite significantly and not be the trojan horse that a good number of analysts and politicians have claimed.
The Biden administration has signaled its willingness to restart talks with Iran aimed at either a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or wiping the slate clean and coming up with a new Iranian nuclear deal. On Thursday, a State Department spokesman said the administration would “accept an invitation from the European Union High Representative to attend a meeting of the P5+1 and Iran to discuss a diplomatic way forward on Iran’s nuclear program.” The timing of the announcement could’ve been better with it coming just days after Iranian-connected militant groups in Iraq launched rockets at a US-led coalition airbase in Erbil. One US civilian contractor was killed and nine people injured including one US soldier. No administration officials have publicly acknowledged that an Iranian-backed group is responsible for the Erbil attack. Which makes sense given that the administration’s main foreign policy goal at the moment is to figure a way back into a nuclear deal with Iran. Admitting that an Iranian supported group is responsible for the attack will force Biden to respond, thus dimming the prospects for future talks with Iran.
Whatever the response may be, it will contrast sharply with the Trump administration’s strategy of retaliating militarily against the militias and going after top Iranian military leaders like Qasem Soleimani. This was a risky strategy. However, it paid dividends by neutralizing Iranian proxy groups inside Iraq and pushed back Tehran’s regional ambitions considerably. In contrast, Joe Biden will be searching first for non-military responses. This runs the risk of presenting a weak response that encourages Iranian proxies inside Iraq and other areas of the region. If these groups reach a point where they feel they can attack US troops and installations without fear of retaliation or other consequence, it will only be a matter of time until a major attack is launched against US troops and interests in Iraq and perhaps on the Arabian Peninsula as well.
The Iranian government is certain Friday’s assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was undertaken on orders issued by the Israeli government. Tehran’s suspicions immediately keyed on Israel and with good reason. The chances of this operation being an Israeli undertaking are high. After all, Fakhrizadeh was a senior scientist and an integral contributor to the Iranian nuclear program. Targeting Iran’s nuclear scientists would be a logical next step for Israeli intelligence following a summer campaign that saw Iranian nuclear sites targeted by sabotage, unexplained explosions and fires.
Outside of the Israeli possibility, there are two competing theories emerging among Western geopolitical analysts, and journalists. The first is that Farkhrizadeh’s killing was a political act intended to sour US-Iranian relations before the Biden administration has an opportunity to settle in. For this theory, the party responsible for the killing does not necessarily have to belong to a foreign intelligence agency. With US economic sanctions, and COVID-19 placing significant pressure on Iran’s economy, hardliners in Tehran have been demanding action against the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. The death of Farkhrizadeh certainly fits the bill as being an act worthy of retribution. The second theory is that the Trump administration is the responsible party, with its motivation being steeped in a deep desire to push Iran’s nuclear ambitions as far back as possible before 20 January, 2021. A third, less likely prospect is Saudi Arabia. Although the motivation is present, Riyadh’s General Intelligence Presidency does not have the ability to execute an operation as intricately planned as the Fakhrizadeh assassination apparently was.
Israel’s capabilities and motives are far more evident. The Mossad is more than capable of pulling off an operation such as this one. Given the present situation in the region, Tel Aviv has ample justification for ordering it. The Fakhrizadeh assassination might very well be a hedge against a future change in US policy regarding Iran. A Biden administration will be considerably less hawkish when it comes to Iran. Biden unveiled his foreign policy team last week and as expected, it appears weak. As we’ve seen in the past, a US willingness to engage in diplomacy to ease tensions with Iran encourages the Tehran regime to push ahead with its nuclear program, albeit in more inconspicuous fashion. Next month Israel could find its Iran policies and goals strikingly different from those of its US ally. Knocking off a senior Iranian scientist now deals a blow to the Iranian nuclear program, and as an added bonus informs the incoming Biden administration that its policies and stance towards Iran will not affect Israel’s own.
President Trump’s address to the nation this morning laid out the US position in clear terms. Barring any further action by Iran, this crisis is and the ball is now in Tehran’s court. Trump opened the door to future negotiations, calling for a new, revised nuclear deal to replace the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCOPA) that was implemented in January of 2016. Trump pointed out that Iran is standing down, a move that certainly helps to reduce tension, and open a pathway for future discussion. The president went on to call for NATO to adopt a larger role in the region, likely hinting at an increased naval presence in the Persian Gulf. Last summer an effort was made to create a multinational naval force to escort oil tankers through the Gulf and Red Sea waters, however, many European allies of the US balked.
Iran’s internal dynamics are certain to play a large role in the coming weeks and months. As I spoke about this morning, the regime’s priority for the moment is likely centered on survival. Hence the moves to arrest many IRGC commanders who were seen as excessively loyal to Qasem Soleimani. With them out of the picture, Iran’s security apparatus will become a trustworthy instrument with loyalty to the regime and not simply one man. This is a signal that a thawing of US-Iran tensions could be coming in the future, and the regime wants to assure that its vaunted IRGC will not act on its own to stoke the flames.
Alas, it is time to move on to other hotspots around the world. Libya, and North Korea first and foremost. We will continue to monitor and discuss Iran in the coming weeks, but for now, with this crisis concluded, other topics can be highlighted and talked about.