Ghassan Charbel
Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

Iran and the Absence of Red Lines

The moment he received the news of the killing of scientist Fakhrizadeh, the “black box” of the nuclear program, Iranian Leader Ali Khamenei found himself in a similar situation to the time when he knew about Qassem Soleimani’s assassination, despite the differences between the two men.

Soleimani was closest to the leader’s heart and represented the guardian of the dream of “exporting the revolution” to the region. Some people believe that Fakhrizadeh was the “nuclear dream.” What links the two events together is that the first was ordered by Donald Trump, and the second is believed to have been implemented by order of Benjamin Netanyahu, taking advantage of the time ahead of the presidential transition at the White House.

Exaggeration is a rooted tradition in our region. We inflate the volume of events and speculate about the responses and prices. Our region helps with that. It is the zone of endless hostilities and daggers that pretend submissiveness. It is a land of strikes and dangers that has not learned from its ancient and modern bloody feasts.

Let us leave the exaggerations aside. Any man can be replaced no matter how brilliant he was. Any facility, no matter how sensitive, can be rebuilt. What’s most difficult is to heal a distorted image. The image of the regime, its master, or the machine holding its strings.

Iran is heading towards the end of the year with two big wounds. The first occurred at the beginning of the year, with the US attack in Baghdad that killed General Soleimani, whom his comrades consider as the Guevara of the Iranian revolution especially as he succeeded in changing the identities of countries and capitals.

It is hard to believe that Tehran was able to respond to this wound with a parallel strike. That’s why we have repeatedly heard the expression of “strategic patience” and “at the right time and place.”

Iran had ruled out any decision by an American president to kill Soleimani. Targeting him is different from targeting Osama bin Laden or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Perhaps Tehran thought that Donald Trump himself, the maker of surprises, would not dare to cross the “red line” by liquidating the man who performed the victory dance over the maps of the “Iranian Crescent”.

The attacks against US bases in Iraq did not rise to the level of a response that heals the prestige of the Iranian regime.

Trump maintained the policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran, inflicting losses on its economy and the financing network of its institutions and arms. In a provocative way, he has always put Iran in front of a difficult choice: either to absorb more losses or to engage in a comprehensive and uneven confrontation.

The difficulty to predict how far the White House master would go was a deterrent that prevented Tehran and its allies from organizing a parallel response to the killing of Soleimani.

In fact, the first strike was represented in the withdrawal of the United States from the nuclear agreement, which constituted a historic opportunity for Iran, when it agreed to the nuclear restrictions, in exchange for lifting the sanctions against it.

The exchange of blows between America and the US dates back to the Khomeinist revolution. But the strikes from the US side have taken an unprecedented dimension in the Trump era and were considered a kind of abolishing the red lines to respond to old wounds.

The Iranian practices that began with holding Americans hostage in their country’s embassy in Tehran and bombing the Marines’ headquarters in Beirut have practically paved the way for abolishing the red lines imposed by international laws even in times of engagement.

It was not the first time that Israel has targeted a nuclear scientist on Iranian soil. It did so at the beginning of last decade. But the recent operation was about the man’s name and value. It’s also about the Iranian authorities’ inability to protect him despite Netanyahu’s overtly mentioning his name to the whole world two years ago, when he revealed nuclear documents that the Mossad had stolen from Iranian drawers.

What’s also new is the magnitude of the Israeli infiltration into Iranian soil. The operation needed an established structure for the provision of explosives and weapons, which means it involved complicity from within services or penetration through their gaps.

The attack comes weeks before the end of Trump’s term; hence, the Biden administration might find itself faced with new facts that complicate any US return to the nuclear deal.

The impact of Fakhrizadeh’s assassination on Iran takes a bigger dimension after the announcement of the killing of Abu Muhammad al-Masri, a senior al-Qaeda official in Tehran, which confirms the previous accusations against the Iranian apparatus. It also comes at a time when Israel is continuing its declared war on Iranian “positioning” on Syrian lands. This war enjoys American support, as well as Russian consent.

Despite the repeated Israeli attacks, Tehran was unable to organize a parallel response, neither through Syria nor through the Lebanese front, which suggests an attempt to impose new rules of engagement or return to possessing the deterrent card. Experts say that Russia is not willing to support an Iranian missile response from Syrian territory. They also say that the Syrian army is not able to bear the consequences of launching such an attack from its soil. They also note that the total collapse of Lebanon is preventing Hezbollah from organizing a large response operation from Lebanon.

In addition to all of the foregoing, the last operation came after a major transformation in the region represented by the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain on the basis of a shared concern over Iranian policies. This practically means that Iran’s attempt to encircle major countries in the region was hit by major blows.

This is the Middle East, living without red lines. Some of its maps are warped by the flames of civil wars, sectarian hatreds, or external interference, amid mounting fears and changing priorities. With the infiltration of maps, detention of cities, assassinations, and raids, the red lines in the region fell. It is natural for anxiety to prevail, and for every capital to hope to stay away from the raging fires.