The New York Times article reporting the story behind the assassination of the Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh at the end of last year reads like the script of a Hollywood thriller: “Robot Assassin 1.”
It’s a story of a complex operation in which Iranian operatives working for the Mossad undertook the mechanized ambush of the target by using a machine gun activated from outside Iran’s borders. The hit was so well targeted that it succeeded in killing Fakhrizadeh without harming his wife, who was sitting next to him in the car.
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Credit for the operation went to former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, who no doubt will one day be played by Tom Cruise. Benjamin Netanyahu, who was prime minister at the time, publicly named Fakhrizadeh as the one responsible for the Iranian nuclear program and ordered the killing during the transition period after Donald Trump lost the 2020 U.S. presidential election and before Joe Biden entered the White House. Netanyahu had hoped that killing the scientist would frustrate the new administration’s plans to return to the nuclear accord with Iran.
The success of the assassination is a testament to the Mossad’s operational capabilities in enemy countries and to the persuasive powers Netanyahu and Cohen enjoyed in the Trump White House. But more than anything else, it exposes the pointlessness of such showcase operations. For now, Iran has not made good on its threat to take revenge for the scientist’s death, but it doesn’t need to, because even without Fakhrizadeh, it has been moving quickly forward to reach nuclear-threshold status – the ability to assemble a nuclear weapon on short notice.
The assassination is an example of the huge technological, diplomatic and financial resources Israel has invested in tactical moves that have no strategic value. Worse than that: Israel, under Netanyahu’s leadership and with the aid of his factotum Cohen, focused on operations that garnered headlines but did little to undermine Iran’s nuclear progress.
The Mossad’s theft of a trove of secret documents from an Iranian warehouse, the achievement that Netanyahu took the most pride in and which convinced Trump to pull the United States out of the nuclear accord, now looks like an own goal – a move that only served to remove whatever restraints had remained on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Israel didn’t succeed in deterring the Iranians, in mobilizing the international community to take military action against Iran or in discouraging the Biden White House from trying to return to the agreement Trump had left.
Netanyahu’s triple failure is evident in the half-veiled threats of his successor, Naftali Bennett, that Israel will attack Iran by itself in a desperate attempt to thwart the nuclear program at the last possible minute.
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Bennett has already established his alibi in case, like his predecessor, he opts not to risk an attack by claiming that Netanyahu failed to prepare the army for one over the years. It’s doubtful that Israel will get any backing for an operation like this, and it would be risking a devastating counterattack on its home front by Iran. In the meantime, we should remember the lesson that robot assassins need smart operators and that operational audacity is no substitute for sensible policy.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.