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Assassination of Iranian Nuclear Scientist a Tactical Success That Risks Strategic Escalation

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Protesters gather during a demonstration against the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in Tehran, Iran, November 28, 2020.
Protesters gather during a demonstration against the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in Tehran, Iran, November 28, 2020. Credit: Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

On the eve of U.S. President Donald Trump’s departure, temperatures are once again rising in the Middle East. This hasn’t been the Iranian regime’s year.

It began with the assassination of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force, and it neared its end with the killing Friday of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who is called the father of his country’s nuclear program (and who oversaw its military aspects). Between these two assassinations, Iran suffered the severe combined blows of the coronavirus, a serious economic crisis and harsh international sanctions.

After Soleimani’s assassination, Iran blamed the United States, which publicly claimed responsibility. Tehran also mentioned Israel as a possible collaborator. But this time, the order is reversed. Iran is primarily blaming Israel.

Trump paused his flood of allegations about the “stolen” election to retweet, without elaboration, tweets by Yossi Melman of Haaretz about the operation. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has abandoned all restraint, used a video he posted on his social media accounts Friday to insinuate that he “can’t tell all” about his actions on Israelis’ behalf over the past week.

Prof. Fakhrizadeh has been in Israel’s sights for years. Netanyahu publicly named him in 2018, when he showed the world the Iranian nuclear archive that the Mossad managed to steal. Both Israeli and Western intelligence agencies described him as someone with vast knowledge of Iran’s nuclear program.

But perhaps even more important than the direct damage his death will cause to the Iranian nuclear program is the way that it will deter other scientists from joining it. The people involved in this project aren’t combat soldiers and aren’t used to considering themselves at risk. This feeling, which was fostered when other Iranian nuclear scientists were assassinated, allegedly by Israel, at the start of the previous decade, will now return with greater intensity.

Iran’s nuclear program has suffered a series of blows over the years that have been attributed to Israel, the United States or both of them together. Alongside assassinations, they included cyberattacks, above all the Stuxnet virus that attacked Iran’s nuclear facilities in 2011.

The most recent blow, and perhaps the worst of all, was in July, when a mysterious nuclear facility in Natanz was blown up. That attack is thought to have delayed the program’s progress by about two years.

But the most prolonged delay in Iran’s nuclear program actually stemmed, for all its flaws, from the nuclear agreement signed by the Obama administration in 2015. Trump withdrew from the international agreement in 2018; President-elect Joe Biden appears determined to rejoin it once he enters office, though he hopes to impose tougher conditions on Tehran.

Protesters burn pictures Joe Biden and Donald Trump during a demonstration against the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in Tehran, Iran, November 28, 2020. Credit: Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS

Whoever killed Fakhrizadeh northeast of Tehran Friday demonstrated accurate intelligence combined with sophisticated operational capabilities by identifying the scientist and his entourage, taking out his bodyguards, killing him and escaping unharmed. It has once again been proved that Tehran is very vulnerable to Western intelligence operations. Even a man who knew he was threatened and who reportedly exercised caution and maintained a low profile has turned out to be vulnerable.

The assassination was preceded by a kind of advance warning this summer, when a senior Al-Qaida official sheltering in Tehran was assassinated. The New York Times revealed his killing just a few weeks ago and attributed it to a joint Israeli-American operation.

The paper also claimed recently that Trump was considering an airstrike on Iran’s nuclear facilities between the November 3 election and Biden’s inauguration on January 20. But such an operation appears unlikely. According to Western military experts, the winter weather would make such an attack difficult, so the more likely possibility is a campaign of sabotage and assassinations.

In any event, Trump’s alleged desire was quickly quashed by the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley. Against the background of a series of purges and ousters at the Pentagon, Milley said, “We are unique among militaries. We do not take an oath to a king or a queen, a tyrant or a dictator. We do not take an oath to an individual. ... We take an oath to the Constitution.”

Friday’s operation took place shortly after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid a visit to the region that included stops in Israel and Saudi Arabia. Netanyahu was reportedly a guest at Pompeo’s meetings in the latter. The Saudis probably weren’t informed of the operational details in advance, but it’s clear that all three countries would have to coordinate in case Iran seeks revenge, as it has threatened.

Iran has been relatively restrained in recent months, while waiting for Biden’s election, but it hasn’t been completely idle. Cyberattacks on Israel were followed this month by the explosion of a Greek oil tanker in a Saudi port, which was reminiscent of similar attacks organized by the Revolutionary Guards last year.

The Iranians responded to Soleimani’s death in January by having Shi’ite militias launch rockets at American bases in Iraq. Trump decided to ignore those attacks and declare victory, and fears of a regional war didn’t come true. As they have many times before, the Iranians blinked when targeted, uncompromising force was used against them.

This time, the circumstances are more complex, due to the upcoming changeover in the White House. If Iran does blame Israel, it could choose among several options, from a pinpoint attack on the northern front to trying to attack Israelis overseas. But the coronavirus would complicate the latter, both because it’s now harder to get agents into another country and because tourist traffic is minimal, reducing the number of targets.

What may be more worrisome is the damage that Israel, if it is indeed responsible, might suffer should its relationship with the Biden administration start off on the wrong foot. So far, the president-elect has said nothing, but senior officials in the Obama administration have issued surprisingly harsh responses to the assassination.

Former CIA Director John Brennan tweeted that it was “a criminal act & highly reckless. It risks lethal retaliation & a new round of regional conflict.” He also termed it “murder” and “an act of state-sponsored terrorism” (though without naming a culprit) and urged the Iranians to do nothing until a responsible leadership arrived in Washington.

Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, tweeted that the attack was “an outrageous action aimed at undermining diplomacy between an incoming U.S. administration and Iran.”

Former senior Israeli defense officials expressed similar views over the weekend, albeit less bluntly. Netanyahu, they said, is very worried about America returning to the nuclear deal under Biden, and Friday’s incident created facts on the ground that could impede the new administration’s regional policy.

Even before Biden takes office, a series of reciprocal reprisals might erupt and draw in the outgoing administration. Trump’s efforts to have the election results disqualified have failed, but he could still foment chaos in the Middle East.

A festive, almost joyous, mood reigned in Israeli television studios Friday night, as happens every time our brilliant agents (and, according to foreign reports, their hired swords) demonstrate their abilities. And the death of such a key player in Iran’s nuclear program undoubtedly is an impressive operational success that caught the Iranian regime unprepared.

On the other hand, we can’t yet rule out the possibility that this tactical success will have strategic implications in the form of a regional escalation. And perhaps that was actually the point.

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