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Killing Iran’s Nuke Chief May Hurt Israel More Than He Ever Did in His Life

There are two possible explanations to the timing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh’s killing. Both are tied to Biden’s inauguration on January 20, and both are extremely high-risk

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Students of Iran's Basij paramilitary force set to burn U.S. and Israeli flags during a rally, Tehran, November 28, 2020Credit: ATTA KENARE - AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, leader and key coordinator of Iran’s nuclear research, was assassinated north of Tehran on Friday morning, suffering a fate similar to other figures involved in Iran's nuclear program.

Fakhrizadeh has been a potential target for Israel, as well as other nations, for over a decade. It’s possible that the necessary intelligence and operational moment presented itself only now, but given the timing, it’s more likely that the unique window of opportunity was created by diplomatic circumstances.

Two assumptions have guided the work of Israeli intelligence in recent weeks. The first is that Iran will not embark on a drastic course until the regime has a clear idea of the Biden administration’s exact policy regarding a return to the 2015 nuclear agreement. The second is that there is a very low probability that Trump would launch a military campaign against Iran before he leaves office, as there are no signs of the United States boosting its defenses in the region ahead of a possibility of Iranian retaliation.

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But the Israeli military is not blasé about the prospect of a rapid escalation. In October, the military carried out a comprehensive exercise simulating the launch of long-range Iranian missiles at Israel. And as officers have sought to stress in recent days, even after the killing of Fakhrizadeh, while a full-blown military conflict is unlikely, the ongoing clandestine war has been stepped up.

If Israel is indeed behind the assassination of Fakhrizadeh, there will be no official confirmation in the foreseeable future. U.S. President Donald Trump, however, retweeted comments on the assassination by Haaretz colleague Yossi Melman, which many interpreted to mean that the killing was orchestrated by Israel with a hearty American blessing. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, cryptically referred to “things I can’t tell you” in a video he uploaded this weekend.

There are two likely backstories to the timing behind the assassination. One, that Israel had opportunities in the past to kill Fakhrizadeh but refrained from doing so, either because it didn’t have American backing or because it saw no need to rock the boat. The regime in Israel, like in Tehran, is unclear about Biden’s Iran policy, and thus decided to take advantage of Trump’s last days in power.

The second explanation is that Israel assassinated Fakhrizadeh at the request of the United States. Israel may have possessed the capabilities and intel to kill him for a while but wasn’t eager to, fearing severe repercussions, and because ultimately the death of one man, albeit the “Father,” would do little damage to an already-advanced nuclear program. In this scenario, Israel acted at the urging of the Iran hawks in the Trump administration who are trying to make it harder for their successors to engage with Iran.

There is recent precedent for this in the killing of Al-Qaida leader Abu Muhammad al-Masri this August in Tehran, which according to The New York Times, was carried out by Mossad, at the CIA’s request. Israeli intelligence officials have stated that normally, al-Masri wouldn’t be seen as a target worthy of the considerable resources and risk involved in an assassination in Tehran, but when the Americans ask, Israel says yes.

Both possibilities involve a troubling degree of risk. If Netanyahu, his Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen and whatever cabinet ministers are in on the secret believe that now is the time to take out high-value targets, then they are banking firstly on the Iranians to self-restrain, for fear of either provoking Trump or missing out on a new deal with Biden, and secondly on Joe Biden’s team to draw a line under what happened before he came to office.

Is this assassination (or any other operation in Netanyahu’s repertoire) worth the risk that the more cautious members in Iran's leadership may lose the argument and decide to retaliate after all? And once the window of opportunity closes on January 20, will Joe Biden and his staff shut Israel out of consultations, having had enough of Netanyahu dictating U.S policy? If so, Fakhrizadeh may end up causing more damage to Israel in his death than he ever did in his life.

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