Timing is everything. That is why the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh outside Tehran on Friday is unlikely to cause an escalation in the region. Fakhrizadeh, a top nuclear scientist, was one of the founders of the Iranian nuclear program, and Iranian officials have already admitted his death is a blow to the country’s defense establishment. However, as Iran eagerly waits for Trump to leave office, the promise of the U.S. rejoining the JCPOA and providing relief from economic sanctions is likely to mitigate any Iranian response.

Fakhrizadeh had long been a target. It is doubtful that any country will ever take credit for the assassination, but The New York Times has reported that Israeli agents were behind the operation. The physicist played an integral part in building up Iranian nuclear facilities; he was even identified by name during Netanyahu’s famous PowerPoint presentation on the Iranian nuclear program in 2018. This marks the most significant damage done to Iran’s nuclear program to date.

Despite the attack, Iran is unlikely to respond aggressively. The loss of Fakhrizadeh may wound Iranian morale, but it remains unclear if the attack had any real effect on curbing the Islamic Republic’s nuclear activity. Most analysts suggest the program has passed the point of being dependent on a single individual, even that of leading scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. An immediate Iranian response appears unlikely with President Rouhani saying Tehran would retaliate “at the proper time,” indicating Iranian patience to see out the remainder of the Trump presidency with relative quiet, although Israel reportedly put diplomatic sites around the world on high alert. 

All of this points to the incoming Biden administration clarifying its priority to renegotiate and reenter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which President Trump left in 2018, meaning relaxation of sanctions on Iran in the near term along with growing international influence.

For Israel, the operation has been deemed a success; the assassination of a top scientist of Iran’s nuclear program with minimal chance of retaliation looks like a win-win, but it doesn’t fully resolve Israel’s Iran quandary as Trump leaves office. The U.S.-Israel cooperation will continue under the Biden administration just as it took place under President Obama. But the two countries may not march in lockstep against Iran, and the days of a relationship free from disagreements over how to handle Tehran are numbered with Trump’s waning days in the White House.

All this leaves Netanyahu in a precarious position. Will he challenge the Biden administration off the bat or seek to prevent further strain and a potentially tense relationship and reluctantly accept a U.S return to the JCPOA? Some Democrats have come out against the strike, suggesting that similar moves in the future may complicate JCPOA negotiations and Israel’s standing on Capitol Hill. In Israel, the reaction was mostly positive though much of the Israeli security establishment has voiced tepid support for the JCPOA, with Iran much closer to a bomb today than when the United States was still party to the nuclear deal.

For Netanyahu personally, the Fakhrizadeh assassination is beneficial; with Israeli elections seemingly imminent, the man that branded himself as the international leader against Iran’s nuclear program will take Saturday’s events as a personal achievement as he enters another election campaign. Despite publicly condemning the strike, Israel’s new friends in the region – the UAE and Saudi Arabia – won’t have too many complaints behind closed doors. Both have already expressed concerns about the incoming U.S. administration’s more diplomatic approach vis-à-vis Iran.

These events will drive serious foreign policy challenges for the incoming Biden administration on day one. When the president-elect assumes office, Iran-Israel tensions will be at an all-time high.  On top of all of this, it remains to be seen what Trump and Netanyahu have in store in the weeks ahead before January 20.