Opinion |

Killing Iran's Nuclear Weapons Chief Was Justified. But It Wasn't Wise

When Israel weighed up the targeted killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, there are ten criteria it should have considered. Instead it appears that Netanyahu chose a strike of marginal tactical importance over far bigger strategic gains

Chuck Freilich
Chuck Freilich
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Protesters gather during a demonstration against the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran's top nuclear scientist, in Tehran, Iran, November 28, 2020
Protesters gather during a demonstration against the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran's top nuclear scientist, in Tehran, Iran, November 28, 2020Credit: WANA/ REUTERS
Chuck Freilich
Chuck Freilich

The question is not whether Israel was justified, if involved, in the targeted killing of Iranian atomic chief, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. It was, and the world is a better place for it. The Iranian nuclear program poses an existential threat to the State of Israel, and anyone involved in it must know that their life is on the line.

The question is whether it was a smart move. Let me offer the following ten criteria for making that call.

First, does Fakhrizadeh’s killing set back the nuclear program in any significant way? No.

The Iranian Atomic Energy Organization is a large bureaucracy and no single individual makes a critical difference. A number of Iranian nuclear scientists were targeted in the past, allegedly by Israel, and the program continued essentially uninterrupted.

Does the killing increase the psychological pressure on Iran, does it give some budding young Iranian nuclear scientists pause, to reconsider pursuing this area of study and joining the Atomic Agency Organization? Will it trigger a witch hunt and some disarray as the Iranians seek out potential traitors? Yes. Is the resulting disarray long-term? No.

Members of Iranian forces carry the coffin of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh during a funeral ceremony in Tehran, Iran. November 30, 2020Credit: WANA NEWS AGENCY/ REUTERS

Second, is Iran’s response likely to be significant, even severe? Possibly.

The events of the past year, including the U.S. targeted killing of the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' Quds force, Qassem Soleimani, the attack on the Natanz nuclear facility and a number of cyber attacks attributed to Israel, the killing of al-Qaida’s second most senior leader in Iran recently, also attributed to Israel, and now Fakhrizadeh, all create heavy pressure on Iran to finally respond, or suffer a severe loss of face and of deterrence.

The U.S. and Israel have successfully prevented most Iranian responses to these attacks, and it is possible that they will be thwarted once again. If Iran does not respond within the coming days, it is likely that they have decided to wait for "a timing of their own choosing," preferring to give diplomacy with President-elect Joe Biden a chance.

Third, does the attack increase the prospects of a major confrontation between Iran and Israel, and possibly the U.S., in the remaining weeks before Biden enters office? Yes. Is this in Israel’s interest? Probably not.

Assuming that the scenario is of a significant Iranian response, against either Israel or the U.S., which provides the pretext for a truly decisive U.S. attack designed to set Iran’s nuclear program back by some years, this might have been in Israel’s interest 6-12 months ago.

A worker stands at the entrance of the reactor of Bushehr nuclear power plant, outside the southern city of Bushehr, Iran. Aug. 22, 2010Credit: Ebrahim Norouzi / IIPA / AP

Then, such a confrontation could not have been attributed to the U.S. elections and imminent change in administrations. Today, with the clock running out on Trump and the unlikely prospect that he would actually take decisive military action, as opposed to some limited strike, the entire scenario becomes undesirable and dangerous.

Fourth, does the attack make it even harder for Biden to reach a new deal, and is it perceived by some in the U.S. as a deliberate attempt to derail his Iran policy? Yes. Is that desirable and wise from Israel’s point of view, and is it in Israel’s interest for Biden’s first foreign policy crisis to be one that it instigated over his objections? No.

Fifth, is this really the right way to go about influencing Biden’s Iran policy and starting off relations with the new administration? The answer is clearly a resounding no.

Then-Vice-President Joe Biden signs the guest book at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's residence while visiting Jerusalem on March 9, 2010Credit: RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

To the contrary, it is a way to start on the wrong foot, and on a major foreign policy issue. Biden has a long history of being strongly pro-Israel and has appointed senior officials of a similar bent. This is not the way to make, or keep, friends and strategic allies.

Sixth, does the attack play into the hands of the hardliners in Iran? Presumably.

Iran is scheduled to hold presidential elections in June 2021. Israel should seek to strengthen the moderates, who want to give diplomacy a chance under Biden, rather than the hardliners who will take more implacable positions and push for a more aggressive response right now. Further strengthening them, as opposed to the shrinking moderate camp, is certainly not in Israel’s interest.

Seventh, was the timing purely incidental, the result of an operational window of opportunity, and if so how should this have affected Israel’s decisions? Meticulous, surgical operations like this are planned months, if not years, in advance. It is entirely possible that an operational window of opportunity did open up at this time. The fact that one has an operational opportunity, however, does not turn it into an operational imperative. Someone, meaning Prime Minister Netanyahu, had to sign off on it.

Eighth, does Israel need a potentially severe military crisis, for anything less than strategic gain, while in the midst of a health and economic crisis of unprecedented proportions in the nation’s history? Clearly not.

It may, however, be in the political and legal interest of the prime minister, who has already used it to at least partially divert attention from his alleged misdeeds in the submarine affair and is engaged in a no-holds-barred effort to remain in office, and stay out of jail, at all costs.

A protester holds sign in Hebrew at a Tehran protest against the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran's top nuclear scientist:'Revenge means Tel Aviv will be consumed by fire.' Nov 28, 2020Credit: WANA/ REUTERS

Ninth, what should Israel be doing? First and foremost, conducting intensive consultations with the incoming administration on the terms of a U.S. return to the old nuclear deal and Biden’s stated objective of using it as the basis for negotiating a new follow-on agreement.

Biden has never explained the linkage mechanism between the two, how the one would lead to the other. Doing so will be extraordinarily difficult and complex, if at all possible, and Israel has much expertise to offer. His team is composed of Iran-realists who are committed to addressing the failings of the 2015 nuclear deal. Israel should be building on this common understanding, rather than alienating the new team through actions of marginal tactical importance.

Tenth, what is the only long-term solution to the Iranian nuclear issue? Thirty years of Israeli assassinations and sabotage efforts, capped by the Stuxnet cyber-attack in 2010 and alleged involvement in the attack on the Natanz nuclear facility last summer, have succeeded in delaying the program by a few years; that's not insignificant in the nonproliferation field.

They have not, however, put an end to the program and are highly unlikely to ever do so. The same holds true of a military strike against Iran: even one that leveled the nuclear facilities is unlikely to gain more than a few years.

A new diplomatic agreement is the only long-term solution. That is what Biden seeks, and that is what we in Israel should be working on with him to perfect.

Chuck Freilich, a former deputy Israeli national security adviser, teaches political science at Columbia and Tel Aviv universities. He is the author of "Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change" (Oxford University Press). Twitter: @FreilichChuck

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