Timing of Iranian Scientist's Killing Is Clear Message for Biden Against Iran Nuclear Deal

Israel's ability to act against Iran may soon be limited by Biden resuming talks with Tehran – which could condition negotiations on Israel stopping its attacks

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Iran's Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi pays his respect to the body of slain scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh among his family, in Tehran, Iran, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020.
Iran's Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi pays his respect to the body of slain scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh among his family, in Tehran, November 28, 2020. Credit: ,AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The assassination of the Iranian nuclear expert Gen. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was just a matter of time and opportunity. The physicist dubbed “the father of Iranian’s nuclear program” and the man who headed Iran’s Center for Preparation of Modern Technologies, where its military nuclear plans were also developed, knew very well that his name was on the United States’ and Israel’s black list.

Back in 2006, in an appearance before the Washington Press Club, Alireza Jafarzadeh, the spokesman for the opposition group Mujahedin-e Khalq, revealed a list of 21 scientists and physicists associated with the nuclear program who are members of the faculty at Imam Hossein University, headed by the Revolutionary Guards. Fakhrizadeh’s name was second on the list. In first place was Fereydoon Abbasi, who in 2010 was seriously wounded in an attempted assassination attributed to Israel.

A few more Iranian scientists have been assassinated since then, but in the last decade, hundreds more nuclear experts have come on board – university graduates, professors and professionals who have institutionalized the infrastructure of knowledge and the development of the Iranian nuclear plans, relying on impressive independent development and knowhow, and components imported or stolen from North Korea, Pakistan and even Western countries. This is a multi-branched system under the control of the Revolutionary Guards, which enjoys almost unlimited government funding and does not rely on the skill or expertise of any one individual.

The killing of Fakhrizadeh is in principle a show of praiseworthy intelligence capability intended to make clear to Iran that the hunting expedition for its nuclear experts attributed to Israel continues unabated, but it is far from shutting down Iran’s nuclear program. The timing of the assassination, even if it was determined by purely operational considerations, is a clear message to President-elect Joe Biden, intended to show Israel’s criticism of the intent to return to the nuclear accord with Iran and other issues, like freezing Iran’s ballistic missile program in return for economic cooperation.

In terms of diplomacy, like the attacks on Iranian targets in Syria, the version presented is that Israel – if indeed Israel was behind the action – is steering its own independent course in its war against Iran, even if other countries do nothing. This goes against the Israeli view that Iran is a global threat, not only to Israel, but it allows Israel to keep the Iranian issue on the public agenda. As opposed to a direct aerial assault on Iran, which could send the region snowballing into international war, the series of assassinations and focused assaults allows the United States, certainly while Donald Trump is still president, to close its eyes to the matter. The same goes for Russia, which has given Israel permission to operate in Syria as long as it doesn’t strike strategic targets of the Syrian regime.

However, Israel’s room to maneuver could shrink if Biden decides as president that any Israeli action against Iran could hurt his efforts to get back to a nuclear agreement, which he would consider a proper basis to stop Iran’s nuclear program and block its ability to develop nuclear weapons. In a moderate scenario, Iran could demand that its willingness to negotiate with the United States over an agreement be linked to Israel stopping its attacks. In a more extreme scenario, Iran might renew its attacks, or those by its proxies in Iraq and Yemen, against American targets to prove that Israel is putting U.S. policy and its position in the region at risk, and undermining the claim that Israel is acting independently without connection to or backing by the United States.

The scene of the attack that killed Mohsen Fakhrizadeh outside Tehran, November 27, 2020, and Fakhrizadeh during a meeting with Iran's supreme leader in Tehran, January 23, 2019.Credit: WANA (West Asia News Agency) via Reuters

Iran is already experienced in initiating attacks against American targets in the Persian Gulf and Iraq, attacks that have put Trump in an embarrassing position in which he has refrained from attacking Iranian targets or responding to an assault on Saudi targets, thus proving that his threats against Iran are not translated from his Twitter feed into action. The U.S. has also realized that the cost of targeted assassinations could be much higher than the dividends it might produce. The killing of Qassem Soleimani in January led to a decision by the Iraqi parliament to demand the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, a move that went against the position of senior American military officials and even that of Biden, who believes that a withdrawal of U.S. troops from the region should be carried out cautiously.

So while Israel is preparing for any possible Iranian reprisal, it could find itself on a collision course with Biden’s anticipated policy, particularly on an issue Israel considers the most strategic threat to its existence. At the same time, Iran, despite its threats and direct accusation of Israel as responsible for killing Fakhrizadeh, is not enthusiastic over opening a new channel of conflict with the United States. In official Iranian statements of response, Israel is the single direct entity responsible for the assassination and Iran tends to act against Israel. The United States, at least so far, has not been mentioned as a partner that must also bear responsibility and be punished.

Tehran is expected to first wait for the Trump family to leave the White House, because it is aware of the possibility that Trump might use any pretext for a show of force against Iran. Biden’s election and his statements regarding Iran have raised the level of optimism, at least among some Iranian leaders, for the possibility that sanctions would be lifted. President Hassan Rohani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said last week that Iran would be willing to negotiate with the United States over conditions to return to the nuclear accord and that Biden’s statements mark a change of direction. Although their statements sparked criticism among Iranian conservatives, especially the Al Quds Commander Esmail Qaani, Soleimani’s replacement, the very fact that there is discussion over a return to the agreement means it is no longer taboo, especially against the backdrop of the deep economic crisis and the coronavirus pandemic in Iran.

Another political question involves the impact of the presidential election in June on Iran’s willingness to renew talks with the U.S. The nuclear agreement is expected to be one of the main bones of contention between the radical conservatives and the Revolutionary Guards on the one hand, and the moderate conservatives and reformists on the other.

The decision will, as usual, rest with the supreme leader Ali Khamenei, who so far has shown no sign of flexibility in his position, even after Biden’s election. But he has already proven that he knows how to formulate his positions in a way that allowed Iran to sign the nuclear agreement, presenting it as an essential Iranian interest. The logic of Iran’s interests could dictate its restraint vis-a-vis Israel and certainly the United States. But given the impossibility of judging the elasticity of Iran’s restraint in light of the Israeli assaults on its prestige, diplomatic and political logic are not necessarily the only factor dictating its response.

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