Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei Image Credit: REUTERS

On July 20, 1988, Iran’s then supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini said in an unusual statement that he agreed to ending the war with Iraq, initiated by the former Baathist regime in Baghdad eight years earlier.

Until that day, Khomeini rejected all regional and international efforts to end the war. He had vowed to continue fighting against Saddam Hussain until “the last drop of my blood” — which I assume meant the last drop of Iranian soldiers. “Even if the Security Council orders, we will not make peace. Even if the whole world gathers, we will not make peace [with Saddam],” Khomeini said in 1982. Six years later, though, and with his country increasingly on the defensive with hundreds of thousands of soldiers dead, tired army and depleted military gear because of the lack of spare parts, Khomeini, claiming he was acting upon the recommendations of his top aides, decided to stop the war.

He must have been so reluctant to take that decision he compared it, in his letter to the Iranian people, to taking “a poison pill.” Since then, his successors have been taking the pill once in a while. Gulping the bitter pill has become so much an Iranian regime thing that few believe that Tehran will retaliate for the killing of its top nuclear scientist last month despite all the daily rhetoric and threats of revenge. At the end of the day, I think the top echelon of the regime will just take another one of those poison pills and move on. Business as usual.

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was killed by a team of assassins outside Tehran on November 27, is not the first top scientist to be assassinated supposedly by Israel as Iranian officials seem to confirm. Since 2007, six other leading scientists working on Iran’s secret nuclear programme have been killed. After each of those assassinations, Iran vowed revenge. But it was mostly another poison pill.

Israel has been engaged in a war of intelligence, assassination and target bombing with Iran for years. However, the Israelis have intensified their campaign in recent years as Iran has become dangerously too close for comfort after the start of the Syrian civil war. Iran, obviously supporting President Bashar Al Assad’s military efforts, has sent weapons, senior military advisers and thousands of paid-for militias to fight against the Syrian opposition, which almost overthrew Al Assad’s regime early in the war. Iran has also been using its heavy presence and bases in Syria to deliver weapons and cash to its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah.

Israel has been looking warily to the growing Iranian presence in Syria. The free movement of weapons had to stop. In January 2013, Israeli planes reportedly struck a Syrian convoy transporting Iranian weapons to Hezbollah. In the past seven years, Israel has reportedly carried out at least 35 attacks like that one in Syria against Iranian targets. The latest was just late last month, on November 26, when an air strike killed at least 19 pro-Iran militia fighters in eastern Syria, according to news agencies at the time. Obviously, Iran has yet to retaliate, despite the aggressive rhetoric and usual threat of ‘painful response’. There apparently is a decision not to strike back — the poison pill again. But why?

Iranian leaders know very well that a military response against Israel will not be a walk in the park. Far from it, it will lead to an all-out war that may involve Israel’s closest ally, the United States, which will definitely not sit on the sidelines watching Israel attacked, especially the current hawkish administration. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week that a military option to neutralise Iran’s nuclear programme was still on the table. A war, instigated by an Iranian attack on Israel, will immediately be fought in Iran. With the US military and its state of the art arsenal stationed in many countries surrounding Iran such as Iraq, Qatar, Afghanistan and Azerbaijan as well as in the Arabian Gulf waters, it will expectedly deal a devastating blow to Iran’s outdated defence systems. This is a fight Iran cannot afford.

Secondly, Iran seems to be betting on the upcoming Joe Biden administration to revive the nuclear deal Tehran signed with the West in 2015 but was abandoned unilaterally by the Trump administration. By attacking Israel, a Biden administration will also be compelled to stand by its ally — and that will of course mean the end of the nuclear deal and any hope Iran has of lifting the sanctions.

Even a targeted response to the assassination of Fakhrizadeh, such as a bombing by Iranian agents or its proxy arms, such as Hezbollah and Iraq’s Hashd militias, against an Israeli target will unleash a severe US response. It could also lead to renewing international sanctions against Tehran as it will be seen as a state sponsored terrorism.

Iran, thus, doesn’t seem to have many options here. And just like those last days of the war with Iraq, Iranian leaders may have to opt again to taking the bitter pill, hoping for sunnier days to come when Biden takes the reins in the White House.