Heated recriminations have reverberated around the world following the assassination of leading Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh last Friday. This single act intensified tension between Iran and the West to a new high. On either sides of the political divide commentators are trying to identify who was responsible and equally pertinently, asking why? Particularly why now? Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called on the international community to ‘condemn this act of state terror.’ This was a clear indication that Tehran holds Mossad, Israel’s intelligence organisation and the US Central Intelligence Agency responsible for Fakhrizadeh’s assassination.
Whoever was behind his assassination has severely undermined forthcoming attempts at rapprochement between Washington and Tehran by President-elect Joe Biden once he takes office. British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab declared he was ‘concerned’ about the possible escalation of tensions in the Middle East. John Brennan, former CIA director warned of the ‘risks of lethal retaliation and a new round of regional conflict.’ He also urged Tehran to ‘resist the urge’ to retaliate.
Politically motivated and state sponsored assassinations are nothing new. Chillingly Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on the streets of Sarajevo sparking the First World War in 1914. Israel memorably avenged the death of its athletes in Munich in 1972 by ordering Mossad to conduct Operation Wrath of God. Former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir famously said, ‘I cannot promise that the terrorists will let us live in peace. But I can, and do promise that every government of Israel will chop off the hands of those who want to cut short the lives of our children.’ Israel has lived by this ethos ever since.
America also enthusiastically employs such modus operandi, especially with its drone wars in Afghanistan and Yemen. However, the legality of assassinating foreign nationals on foreign soil in states that a country is not at war with remains a diplomatic and legal minefield. Furthermore, many are uneasy about the claim that ‘the means justifies the end.’
It is widely accepted that Fakhrizadeh was assassinated because of his leading role in Iran’s nuclear programme. Ambushed in his car in Absard 50 miles east of Tehran by attackers using a car bomb and a sizeable hit squad he subsequently died of his wounds. The sophistication of the attack shows that it was well planned and executed. This makes it look like state sponsored terrorism as Iran asserts. Mossad has regularly been accused of killing senior Iranian officials. Amongst those was Iranian nuclear scientist Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan who was assassinated in a motorbike bomb attack in 2012. Up to that point he was the fourth Iranian nuclear scientist to be murdered. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu named Fakhrizadeh as a key figure in developing Iran’s nuclear programme two years ago. This begs the question why assassinate him now? Whoever is responsible, the timing is wrong.
President-elect Biden has made it no secret that he wants to kick-start the moribund Iran nuclear deal, put together by Barak Obama back in 2015 and unceremoniously dumped by Donald Trump three years later. Antony Blinken, the nominee for US Secretary of State, is also a keen supporter of resurrecting the Iran nuclear deal. In contrast Trump has long wanted to take a much harder line over Iran’s nuclear activities. The New York Times reported that he requested targeting options for Iran’s main nuclear facility at Natanz.
Both Israel and Saudi Arabia are concerned by the direction President-elect Biden will take regarding the Middle East once he assumes office. Although Iran was swift to blame Israel, the Israelis firstly denied involvement in the assassination of the man who headed Iran’s ministry of defence research and innovation organisation. It is unclear if Saudi Arabia was complicit in Fakhrizadeh’s assassination. The Kingdom continues to be vexed by Iran’s support for the Houthi in northern Yemen and its nuclear aspirations. The Houthi recently attacked Saudi Aramco’s oil facilities in Jeddah thereby threatening the country’s economy.
The Israeli media recently reported a secret meeting between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Prime Minister Netanyahu signalling a possibly new alignment. The Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud subsequently denied this ever took place. Certainly though Donald Trump has been working to bring the Arab states and Israel together.
The assassination of Fakhrizadeh will make President-elect Biden’s job much harder. It does little to make Iran amenable to renewed negotiations over the future of Natanz. Nonetheless, most sensible commentators firmly believe that a diplomatic solution remains the only way ahead. Constantly being at loggerheads achieves nothing. No one in their right mind wants another major conflict in the Middle East. It is time for cooler heads to prevail. Ultimately a lot depends on how Iran chooses to respond in the coming weeks and whether the international community can somehow reassure Iran that its scientists are no longer in mortal danger.