On November 27, the convoy of the senior nuclear scientist and Brigadier General in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was attacked in Abesard, a county in the outskirts of Tehran (around 40 km). Various analyses on the subject conclude that the assassination will be a test for the Iranian government before President Joe Biden assumes office in January 2021. Yet, what remains less discussed is the domestic implications of the assassination. How do the hardliners and reformists view the assassination? Is assassination a short-term phenomenon, or would it carry long-term implications? The article contends that more than just a strategic loss for the regime, the Mohsen Fakhrizadeh assassination will add to year-long discontent among Iranian people and will present new challenges for the reformists and conservatives alike.
The precise information about the killing is scrubby and is slowly disclosed by the security establishment. Earlier, it was reported that there was an explosion, which followed firing at the convoy, suggesting a team of personnel. The attack wounded Fakhrizadeh, who later succumbed to his injuries. Later, Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, denied the existence of any men on-ground and added that the assassination involved electronic equipment. This followed IRGC deputy-commander Ali Fadavi’s statement, “The satellite machine gun was controlled online, and there were no terrorists at the scene.” He added that the operation also involved the use of “artificial intelligence technology.”
This flitter about the team on-ground indicates self-doubt on the part of Iran’s security apparatus, which is inhabited by hardliners. In case, the attack was carried out by a team of personnel on the ground, so-close to Tehran, it will severely undermine the claims of Iran’s defence capabilities, fervently argued by hardliner dominated security establishment. By placing the blame on the sophisticated technology, the hardliners intend to shift the laxity away from themselves. Such caution on the part of the security establishment is opportune, given the fact that a month ago, Israel openly took the responsibility of neutralising the al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, Abu Muhammad al-Masri in Tehran. Tel Aviv claimed that the target was identified and operatives in Tehran carried out the operation. Naturally, Iran denied the claim contending that al-Masri was killed in Afghanistan. So far, neither Tel Aviv nor Washington has claimed any involvement in the assassination, but given the strategic purpose that assassination serves, it would be hard to imagine otherwise.
Traditionally, the hardliners within Iran have advocated for advancing Iran’s defence capabilities and opposed conciliation with the US. Hardliner faction is majorly composed of individuals from ideologically-driven IRGC, influential clerical figures and those who believe in the values and ideals of the Revolution, as espoused by Ayatollah Khomeini. This is particularly true when it comes to security and foreign policy, where former-IRGC members are assimilated, as soon as they retire from services. The failure to prevent the assassination of Soleimani and now Fakhrizadeh pokes a hole in hardliners assertions about their approach.
Moreover, this year, apart from Soleimani assassination, there were explosions and fires in strategic instalments all over Iran that undermine hardliner’s claims about security preparedness. Such failures are not going to assuage the public about the merits of their policies. After Soleimani’s killing, Iran responded in a week firing missiles at the US targets in Iraq and later ended up blowing up a civilian airliner by accident. In Fakhrizadeh’s case, it is true that he hardly had Soleimani’s status, but so far, no tangible responses have come from hardliners.
In the last two elections, conservatives had failed to secure the presidency. Already, the reformist/centrists government of President Rouhani hopes to obtain economic incentives for Iran from the upcoming Biden administration, which might give the reformists/centrists an edge like it did last time. If the hardliners pursue the same aggressive policies, with nothing to back their claims but mishaps like this, the results will remain the same in June 2021 elections for them. The insistence on defence would not bode well with the public when the public is hard-pressed under sanctions and the pandemic. The prime challenge in-front of hardliners is whether to either pursue more aggressive position (that continuously failed in the past) or to reorient their policies, in light of the strategic mishaps that they encountered in the form of assassinations and explosions.
Challenges to Reformists
Now things will not be easy for reformists either. Earlier, this year, the 13th Parliamentary elections proved a disaster for them. Indeed, several reformist candidates were either disqualified or not allowed to run for the elections by the Guardian Council, a body that vets the candidates before election and is dominated by the hardliners. Regardless, the reformists underperformed in seats where they contested, indicating a decline in their popularity. The most obvious reason is the failure to provide economic incentives to Iranians, which they promised in both previous elections. The foundation of those promises was JCPOA that was publicised and viewed by most as an instrument to put the Iranian economy back on track.
In 2017, when President Trump unilaterally pulled out of JCPOA, the support for reformists plunged within Iranian politics. To regain the public support, the reformists need a foreign policy victory, more noticeably a concession by the Biden Administration on account of JCPOA. The upcoming administration is expected to be docile with Iran, if not entirely favourable. Supreme Leader Khamenei has already said that he does not see any changes in Washington’s policy under Biden. But the musings have been positive, which gets more substance with statements from both sides. So far, Biden has condemned the assassination.
President Rouhani also affirmed, “Iran and the US can both decide and announce that they will return to conditions on January 20, 2017,” which more or less hangs the future of JCPOA on the upcoming Biden administration. However, the assassination poses a great hurdle for reformists/centrists as Rouhani is hard-pressed by the hardliner and public who seeks revenge for the assassination. The parliament already seems to be pushing his hand on the reprisal by rebuffing Iran’s commitment to Additional Protocol of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
So far, Rouhani has desisted any such moves, but any response from the IRGC or Iran-linked militias are under Rouhani’s control. Besides Rouhani’s relationship had been tensed with the IRGC. IRGC commanders had openly criticised him before his re-election in 2017. The challenge for reformists now is to resist any bold steps that will curtail the path for negotiations with Biden administration. In doing so, Rouhani government do not want to appear weak on the security front, as the earlier attempts to negotiate with the US and signing of JCPOA yielded little outcomes.
To conclude, the assassination, along with year-long incidents present domestic implications for both the hardliner and the reformist/centrists. For the former, the constant failure of Iran’s security establishment to protect its critical assets and senior figures within the security establishment puts hardliner’s methods into question. As the country faces economic and health crises, the hardliners would find it challenging to apportion resources to their aggressive policies. On the other hand, the reformists will face serious anti-incumbency problem, since they failed to deliver on their promises. Although the reformists may be counting on Biden administration for some concessions, any attempts at reprisal for the assassination would complicate their position with Biden administration, especially when conservatives are forcing their hand.
*Prabhat Jawla is currently a research intern in the West Asia Centre at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi.