The Iranian nuclear scientist’s assassination: danger ahead
As any dramatist could tell you when can be as important as what. The assassination of the Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh last week was a reckless and provocative act, tagged as a potential breach of international law not only by the UN rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, but also by the former CIA chief John Brennan. Though no one has claimed responsibility, US officials have indicated that the killing is the work of Israel; previous assassinations of nuclear scientists have been attributed to Mossad.
What is truly striking is the timing. Fakhrizadeh was a top target, but the last such killing was in 2012, and the Obama administration had warned Israel off other hits. It is hard to believe it is a coincidence that this took place as Donald Trump prepares to reluctantly leave office. As such, it appears to have less to do with events in Iran than with politics in the US and indeed Israel, where Benjamin Netanyahu is looking once more to his electoral prospects. The real damage done is not to the Iranian nuclear programme, but to diplomacy. The suspicion is that the intent is to provoke a reaction that the president-elect, Joe Biden, might feel unable to ignore, making his plans for a return to the nuclear accord even tougher – or, worse still, which allows the Trump administration to hit back harder. Iran has vowed to respond. Though it understands the forces in play and is usually careful to calibrate its actions, the killing – coming months after the US killed Iran’s most powerful general, Qassem Suleimani – has highlighted its vulnerability. This is a dangerous moment.
The real problem, however, is not the actions of the last few days, but of the last four years. Mr Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the Iran nuclear deal – despite Iranian compliance, and since then has done all he can to destroy it. From a combination of ideology and, in Mr Trump’s case, a narcissism and vindictiveness that made him determined to dismantle his predecessor’s signature achievement, the administration has undermined Iran’s moderates, including the president, Hassan Rouhani, and strengthened the hardliners. The damage has been compounded by actions such as approving the sale of nuclear technology to Iran’s great foe, Saudi Arabia.
The message Mr Trump sent was that the US is both untrustworthy and unreliable, and that any agreement is likely to be temporary and to rest upon the president’s whim. That Mr Biden will be regarded as a more predictable player may affect short-term calculations; but in the longer term, other countries see the US as fundamentally less dependable. These lessons will be heeded not only by Tehran, but by others; notably Pyongyang.
The E3 – UK, France and Germany – have battled to hold the line against intense US pressure and done all they can to shore up the JCPOA. This has only limited the damage. Iran has steadily been breaching its commitments in the deal, in what it portrays as a response to US betrayal and an attempt to increase support from the other JCPOA signatories. Creating a roadmap to bring Iran and the US back into line with the original agreement would be helpful.
But Mr Biden is not inaugurated until 20 January. The screws are still tightening on the Iranian economy. We already know that Mr Trump mooted the possibility of an attack on nuclear facilities, but was warned off by aides. He has since reportedly given his advisers the go-ahead to turn up the pressure as long as they don’t “start world war three”. Some hope that the Israeli Defence Forces and Pentagon could slow roll any especially dangerous initiatives. But the risk is real that the harm done since 2016 could soon be magnified. Though Mr Trump’s departure is a cause for relief, it cannot come soon enough.