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  • Arthur Kleinman

The assassination of Iran's top scientist: Masterstroke or miscalculation?


How does one define a nominally clandestine activity principally designed to illustrate beyond doubt the culpability of its perpetrators? A good question - and a particularly pertinent one, given the stunning prolificity with which certain state actors have recently engaged in this fine art. While the lines between plausible deniability and implausible deniability were already blurred by scenarios such as the 2018 Skripal poisonings, a string of gambits perpetrated by the US and Israeli governments over the past year have obliterated said lines altogether. The most recent of these came on November 27, when Mohsen Fakhrizadeh – presumed by many to be Iran's chief nuclear scientist - was assassinated in broad daylight by a team most likely sent by Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency; the non-denial issued by Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as his comically conspicuous trip to Saudi Arabia mere days earlier during which he allegedly met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, indicate as much.

All that said, what rationale would Jerusalem (and their likely co-operators in Washington and Riyadh) have for engaging in such a brash, high-risk stunt? Both the Israelis and Saudis loathed the Obama administration’s negotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal – with their arch enemies in Tehran. From their perspective, the JCPOA gave them the worst of both worlds: on one hand, the easing of sanctions against Iran bolstered the latter’s economy, thus increasing its capacity to support proxies in various Arab states – such as Hezbollah in Lebanon or the Houthis in Yemen – which undermined Israeli and Saudi interests respectively; on the other, it bolstered the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy on the world stage, particularly vis-à-vis the European signatories of the Deal (namely Britain, France and Germany), which throughout Trump administration lobbied for its reinstatement. To intuit the opprobrium elicited by this new diplomatic reality, one need only look to MbS’s likening of Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to Adolf Hitler in a 2018 interview with CBS.

Imagine the misery felt by MbS and his comrade Netanyahu when the Trump administration, which had been surprisingly congenial to the interests of both leaders in innumerable respects, lost its bid for re-election against Joe Biden, who seems set to re-appoint many prominent Obama-era officials. Among them is Tony Blinken, the presumptive Secretary of State, who in August spoke of his hopes for a renewed, strengthened JCPOA following Trump’s withdrawal in 2018.

It is in scenarios such as this that one of American democracy’s most prominent idiosyncrasies – the ‘lame duck’ multi-month transition period between administrations – comes to the fore. Trump and his circle of sycophants are keen to cause mischief for their incoming opponents, while Netanyahu and MbS – both politicians of extravagant sensibility and hard-line critics of Obama’s diplomacy with Tehran – seek above all else to prevent a return to the pre-Trump status quo. The assassination of Fakhrizadeh may initially seem to be a tactical masterstroke in this regard; not only have the Israelis and their allies dispatched an individual of non-negligible importance to Tehran’s central policy, but furthermore raised the temperature in a manner bound to undermine negotiations over a renewed JCPOA once Biden enters office.

Predictably, Fakhrizadeh’s death has elicited fury within Iran, particularly among political conservatives and hardliners, who – following a dubious legislative election earlier this year – dominate the nation’s parliament. Following the assassination, Iranian lawmakers called for inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to cease, and soon afterwards voted to increase the country’s uranium enrichment levels from 4.5% to 20%. Both of these measures are in stark contravention of the JCPOA, which imposed the inspections and limited enrichment at 3.67%.

More broadly, the Fakhrizadeh affair has vindicated the view long held by many Iranian hardliners that any attempts to institute some rapprochement with the West will ultimately backfire for their regime. Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf, a one-time conservative contender for the presidency against the moderate incumbent, Hassan Rouhani, insisted that future attacks could only be deterred through a “strong reaction”, implying military action of some sort. Moreover, this development comes after more than two years of economic misery induced by the reinstatement of crippling economic sanctions by the Trump administration – the precise outcome that agreeing to the JCPOA was meant to preclude. As one might expect, there is little good faith regarding the prospect of renewed negotiations left among officials in Tehran.

With a presidential election looming next year which Iran’s hardliners look set to win, the outlook may, at first blush, seem grim for those hoping to reconstitute the JCPOA, and conversely, optimistic for the Saudis, Israelis and their associates seeking to bring about the demise of the Islamic Republic. Nevertheless, there are good reasons to deem such conclusiveness premature. First of all, Tehran’s vulnerability at the present moment should not be understated. Despite moves to develop closer ties with Russia and China, America’s effective dominance of the international financial system – backstopped by the US dollar’s status as the world reserve currency – will induce further debilitation of the Iranian economy if Tehran pushes back with any veracity. The coronavirus pandemic has only compounded an already acute economic crisis, which just last year fuelled a brief wave of protest deemed so threatening by the regime that it responded with brutal force, leaving hundreds dead. As such, the position Tehran currently occupies is anything but strong. The belligerent rhetoric toward the West, while undoubtedly reflecting genuine fury among conservatives, is also in some ways a façade, undergirded by the implicit recognition that, if the regime is to survive, its current predicament is unsustainable – and sooner or later they will need to return to the negotiating table.

Highly illustrative in this regard was the regime’s muted response to the assassination of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Chief Qassem Soleimani earlier on this year. The Trump administration’s decision to have him killed was indeed irresponsible and brash to an immeasurable degree, and indubitably served to destabilise the region more than anything else. Regardless, despite attempts to cast their largely inconsequential reaction as a remarkable act of restraint for a nation under attack, it is difficult not to conclude that Iran’s leaders succumbed to intimidation in the face of American power. If the death of Soleimani – a revered figure within the country and one of its most senior military officials – wasn’t sufficient to rule out a reinstatement of the JCPOA, what is? Herein lies the potential miscalculation of Jerusalem and Riyadh in their self-incriminating gambit; their rivals in Tehran may be more rational – and responsive to the realities of power – than they assume. And the Biden administration, which is above all motivated by a profound animus toward Trump and all he stood for, will not give Netanyahu and MbS the same privileged treatment they have grown used to over the past four years. The JCPOA may yet live.

Image - Flickr (UN Photo/ Cia Pak)



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