Once again, it’s been a while since my last update to this blog, but 2020 has provided more than enough distractions for everyone. As if to prove that point, I’m editing this post on my phone from a parking lot outside an urgent care center as I wait for the results of a COVID test. (Fortunately, the test came back negative.)
Another hallmark of 2020 has been the ongoing series of attacks targeting Iran and its officials over the past several months. In yet another incident, Iran’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was assassinated outside of Tehran on Friday afternoon. Details of the assassination are still murky, although it appears to be a professional effort. We’ll learn more in the coming days and weeks as more information comes to light.
The assassination follows on the heels of another killing of an Iranian official, Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani, back in January of this year. While the U.S. quickly claimed credit for that attack, no one has yet done so for this one.
Iran, as ever, is reflexively casting blame on Israel. No hard evidence exists yet in support of this theory, but there is good reason to suspect its veracity. Fakhrizadeh is far from an anonymous bit player in Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Frequently referred to as the “father of the Iranian nuclear program” (or, more problematically, as the father of the “Iranian bomb,” which doesn’t exist), Fakhrizadeh has long been on the Israelis’ radar as a possible target for assassination. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu singled him out by name in his highly-publicized “briefing” following an Israeli raid on a nuclear research archive in Tehran in 2018. In that presentation, which, notably, was conducted in English for a crowd of global press, Netanyahu identified Fakhrizadeh as the head of Iran’s “Project Amad,” a research program that conducted preliminary investigations into the possibility of building a nuclear weapon. He told his audience to “remember that name.”
Not for nothing, assassination has long been part of the Israeli arsenal. So much so that Israeli investigative journalist Ronan Bergman recently published a 784-page book on the subject.
Like all things in modern politics and life, how you interpret this attack is closely correlated with your position on the political spectrum. The right-wing/neoconservative crowd is celebrating Fakhrizadeh’s death as yet another triumph in the long shadow war against Iran. Meanwhile, most of the center and the entirety of the left are calling this an unjustified act of aggression with little impact on the Iranian nuclear program itself. Far from it, these critics note that the main result of this attack will be the hamstringing of diplomatic efforts in the coming months.
Surely, this was the point. Both outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump and Netanyahu are wholly invested in scuttling the idea of negotiations over a return to the JCPOA (or anything else) before they can begin. Netanyahu needs a continued crisis with Iran to distract from his own political woes, namely the ongoing corruption trials, while Trump desperately wants to salt the earth for the incoming Biden administration.
There are additional strategic considerations at play for Israel. Netanyahu has already used the Iran threat to improve Israel’s relations with regional Arab states, including normalizing ties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. In doing so, he has achieved what’s being hailed as a “diplomatic breakthrough” without even a meaningful attempt at addressing the Palestinian question. The enemy-of-my-enemy thinking is so persuasive, in fact, that even the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is rumored to be flirting with Israel over the possibility of normalization. Netanyahu not-so-secretly met with Saudi crown prince (and de facto ruler) Mohammad Bin Salman shortly after Biden’s election, although the Saudis are currently denying that this meeting took place. Rumors of unofficial collaborations between Israeli and Saudi intelligence and military officials have been an open secret for years.
For Tehran, the only question now is how to respond. In the short run, Iran has no interest in provoking a wider conflict with Israel, the United States, or any of its Arab rivals. As I’ve written before, the Iranians can read a calendar, and they know that a new administration is taking office in less than two months. Despite what many Iranian officials have said about not seeing any difference between Trump and Biden, they are keenly aware of the significance of a Biden victory as a pathway out of the hole they find themselves in.
Tehran will feel the need to respond militarily, as they did with the Soleimani attack, if only to save face. Iranian leadership is understandably shaken after enduring a year of sabotage and assassination without bringing any of the culprits to account. Still, it would be unlike Iran to lash out in a hasty or emotional manner just to even the score. As with the Soleimani reprisal, whatever action they take will likely be carefully measured in an attempt to limit the justification for further escalation.
In the long run, this assassination — and, presumably, any additional provocations that occur between now and January 20, 2021 — will bolster arguments in Iran against a return to negotiations, nuclear or otherwise, with the United States. Early indications suggest that the hardliners are out for blood. Saturday’s headline in the hardline paper Kayhan read, “The Zionists should expect an eye for an eye.” Vatan Emrooz, another hardline outlet, ran a critical retrospective on the “costs” of the Rouhani administration alongside the requisite call for retaliation for Fakhrizadeh’s killing. The timing of that retrospective hardly feels coincidental.
The internal turmoil in Iran will make Biden’s job more challenging as he takes office in January. The veteran diplomats filling his administration’s upper ranks, many of whom, such as national security advisor nominee Jake Sullivan, were deeply involved in the original JCPOA negotiations, will prove a critical asset. But experience or personal relationships alone will not be sufficient to clear this hurdle. Biden will need to be willing to make some real concessions to Iran, including publicly acknowledging past mistakes, to jumpstart the process again.
This public accounting will need to be more comprehensive than merely a condemnation of his predecessor. Even before Trump’s victory in 2016, the failure of the JCPOA to deliver any kind of substantive benefit for the Iranian population had already left an indelible mark on the rapprochement narrative in Tehran. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani overcame this during his reelection campaign in 2017 thanks in part to Trump’s hesitancy at the beginning of his term to scuttle the deal straight away, despite his promises on the campaign trail to do so. But the situation has changed considerably since then. Over two-and-a-half years of crippling economic sanctions and three high-profile assassinations (two taking place on Iranian soil) have eroded any semblance of trust or goodwill between Iran and the United States. It’s entirely possible, logical even, that both Iran’s leadership and its population will decide that a more confrontational approach is needed moving forward.
Biden will have to move quickly and aggressively to try to correct this course. As it stands, it’s almost certain the list of approved candidates for the 2021 Iranian presidential election will be overwhelmingly weighted in favor of the hardliners. If this year’s parliamentary elections are any indication of the country’s political trend, the results are likely to follow suit. With the elections scheduled for June, Biden and his team will have less than half a year to gain a foothold with their old contacts before a potentially new set of negotiators take over.
In the worst-case scenario, it may already be too late to salvage Iran relations. Tehran may decide that its best course of action involves an all out push for a nuclear weapon. Strategically, it’s hard to argue with that logic. One look at geopolitics reveals the difference in treatment between the nuclear haves and have nots. Regime leadership may decide that with no viable alternative paths, full nuclear weaponization may be their best insurance against increasingly aggressive attempts to remove them from power. After all, if you’re stuck in a hole with no way out, you may as well keep digging.