Two weeks on from the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist: what are the diplomatic implications?

Almost two weeks have passed since the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, yet many details of the attack remain unclear. It is believed that Fakhrizadeh, a physics professor and brigadier general in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, was targeted because his ties to Iran’s nuclear weapons programme. The impact of this brutal act, however, will stretch far beyond Iran’s nuclear activities. ‘The real damage done,’ as a Guardian editorial earlier this week argued, ‘is not to the Iranian nuclear programme, but to diplomacy.’ Tensions between Iran and Israel – whom Iran is holding responsible for the attack – are escalating. There are concerns, meanwhile, that Iranian retaliation will threaten the country’s relationship with the incoming Biden administration. Unfortunately, retaliation seems likely – in an ominous address at the scientist’s funeral last week, leader of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Admiral Shamkhani, declared Fakhrizadeh a martyr and vowed that ‘no crime, no terror and no stupid act will go unanswered by the Iranian people.’  

Conflicting accounts as to what happened on November 27th further complicate matters. Fakhrizadeh is reported to have been driving through Tehran in a bullet-proof vehicle, accompanied by security personnel and a convoy of armoured vehicles when his entourage was attacked. Early news coverage described a gunfight between Fakhrizadeh’s bodyguards and several gunmen, with reports suggesting that ‘three to four individuals, who are said to have been terrorists, were killed. Since then, however, the defence ministry has changed tack, arguing that the scientist had actually been killed by a ‘remote machine gun’ or weapons ‘controlled by satellite.’ It is unclear what has given rise to these disparities, though they certainly don’t reflect well on the Iranian security services – who, Shamkhani revealed, had been given prior warning ahead of the assassination attempt, but failed to act upon it.  

Although no single group has stepped forward to take responsibility for the killing, many are accusing Israel, whom Iran also holds accountable for the assassination of four Iranian nuclear scientists between 2010 and 2012. The New York Times has corroborated this claim, quoting three US officials who claim that Israel was behind the attack. A clandestine meeting between the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and PM Netanyahu in the days leading up to the attack is also being used as evidence of Israel’s scheming. Furthermore, it can be said with absolute certainty that Fakhrizadeh was on Israel’s radar, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has previously mentioned him by name. In 2018, Netanyahu publicly alleged that Fakhrizadeh was leading a secret Iranian nuclear programme, the continuation of a project that had officially been shut down in 2003. Although Israeli officials have denied any prior knowledge of the assassination, the threat of Iranian retaliation has certainly been taken seriously. Israel placed its embassies on high alert on November 28th, with many Jewish communities in the diaspora following suit. 

Did Fakhrizadeh’s assassination therefore stem from concern about Iran’s nuclear activities? There certainly are concerns that Iran is producing an increased quantity of enriched uranium, despite a commitment to limit its nuclear activities in line with the 2015 Iran Nuclear Accord. In fact, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) revealed that Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium exceeds the limit by 12 times. But this concern alone is not sufficient to have warranted the attackIndeed, as Mark Fitzpatrick, an associate fellow with London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), tweeted, ‘Iran’s nuclear program is long past the point when it is dependent on a single individual.’ Although Fakhrizadeh’s involvement in the Iranian weapons programme provides a superficial motive, it seems more likely that his assassination was orchestrated in order to engage Iran in retaliatory action, which in turn might jeopardise Iranian relations with the Biden administration.  

As yet, it is unclear how much – if anything – the United States knew about the operation, although historically it has often shared intelligence regarding Iran with its close ally, IsraelIt cannot be pure coincidence, however, that Israel should choose to bait Iran in such an antagonistic manner, just as the US is undergoing such a significant transition of power. Biden made it clear during his election campaign that he hoped to re-join the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that Trump forsook in 2018. Such re-engagement would be a positive move for Iran too, as it would bring the possibility of sanctions relief, necessary to jump-start the Iranian economy. A possible motive might be to push Iran towards a retaliatory action that would urge Biden to maintain strict sanctions and take a harsher line in his negotiations. How the situation will develop remains to be seen; but for now, the ball is in Iran’s court.  


Image: Tasnim News Agency Mohsen Fakhrizadeh’ via Wikimedia Commons 

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