[Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, an Iranian nuclear physicist and key official in that country’s nuclear program, was killed in an ambush on a provincial road outside Tehran on 27 November 2020. The assassination was widely assumed to be the work of Israel, perhaps acting in coordination with the United States and local agents. Coming during the waning days of the Trump administration, the killing was characterized as an attempt to raise US-Iranian tensions at a sensitive point in time and frustrate the stated ambition of President-elect Joe Biden to resume United States compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the multilateral 2015 Iran nuclear agreement from which Washington unilaterally withdrew in 2017. Mouin Rabbani, editor of Quick Thoughts and Jadaliyya Co-Editor, interviewed Pouya Alimagham, a specialist on Iranian affairs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), to learn more about the context and potential consequences of the Fakhrizadeh assassination.]
Mouin Rabbani (MR): What do we know about Mohsen Fakhrizadeh’s assassination and the identity of the perpetrators?
Pouya Alimagham (PA): There is little doubt that Israel was behind the assassination of Iranian nuclear physicist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Three reasons substantiate this position. First, it fits the pattern of Israel’s modus operandi—it has assassinated several Iranian nuclear scientists, under similar circumstances, in recent years. Second, senior US officials have disclosed that Israel carried out the assassination, though it remains unclear whether the US had prior knowledge of the operation or participated in the killing. Third, the assassination aligns with Israel’s objective of ensuring that the United States, under the incoming Biden administration, will not be able to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or Iran nuclear deal), which begs the question of why Israel opposes the JCPOA and what it hopes to achieve from continued US-Iran antagonism.
MR: What was the assassination of Fakhrizadeh intended to achieve, and what is the likelihood this objective will be met?
PA: Israel, along with allied governments in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are the key regional opponents of the JCPOA; they lobbied the Trump administration to abandon it from the very onset of Trump’s presidency. Whereas Candidate Trump spoke of the Saudi role in 9/1l, President Trump’s first foreign trip as president was to Saudi Arabia where he signed arms deals to the tune of USD 110 billion. For the Saudis, that massive purchase order was not only about acquiring weapons, but also about demonstrating to the Trump administration the financial utility of a booming relationship with the Saudis. In return, the Saudis hoped that the Trump administration would support their anti-Iranian foreign policy. Scuttling the JCPOA, the region’s most important arms control treaty, was the first step. Unilateral US sanctions on Iran was the second. Together, the Saudis, Emiratis, and Israelis worked tirelessly to urge their US ally, the world’s foremost superpower, to punish Iran via sanctions in a bid to curtail its regional influence or potentially implode the country of 83 million people.
At the same time, the Trump administration argued that the Iran nuclear agreement was flawed, and presented the unilateral US sanctions campaign, what the administration called “maximum pressure,” as necessary to force the Iranians to renegotiate the JCPOA and sign a new deal. The Iranians continued to strictly abide by the deal for an entire year—what the Iranians called “strategic patience”—hoping that the deal’s European signatories would circumvent US sanctions. The Europeans never managed to do so in a meaningful way, and Iran commenced with incremental measures with respect to the stockpiling and enrichment of its uranium stock to demonstrate that it was not prepared to capitulate to Washington. The Trump administration continued to pile on additional rounds of sanctions, and even tightened them further during the Covid-19 pandemic. This prompted Tehran—the epicenter of the outbreak in the Middle East—to prematurely end its lockdown in order to ward off total economic ruin. This predictably led to new spikes in infections.
The Iranians were keen to wait Trump out, and he is now leaving office. Iran has every incentive to wait and see if the incoming Biden administration will facilitate a return to US compliance with the JCPOA, but the Trump administration continues to intensify its sanctions regime against Iran. This begs the question: if the entire premise of the sanctions regime was to pressure Iran to renegotiate the JCPOA, and no negotiations are to be had now that Trump is on his way out, why is he continuing to impose more sanctions on Iran? The explanation is that the purpose of the sanctions is the same as that of the assassination of Fakhrizadeh; it was never about Iran’s civilian nuclear program, but about ensuring that the US and Iran remain enemies.
The Saudis, Israelis, Emiratis, and the Trump administration all want to ensure that US power is used to isolate Iran, especially economically, from the rest of the world. The latest sanctions are in fact unconnected to Iran’s nuclear program and justified on human rights and anti-terrorism grounds. This makes them more difficult for the incoming US administration to rescind in the context of an effort to revive the nuclear deal. Some proponents of these sanctions have brazenly and explicitly referred to a “sanctions wall” that will prevent a US return to the JCPOA. In other words, the assassination, like the sanctions, is not about preventing the weaponization of Iran’s civilian nuclear program, but about obstructing diplomacy.
MR: How has Iran and its competing leadership factions responded to this assassination?
PA: Iran’s leaders understand politics as a game of chess, and strategy is key. They are convinced that the Israelis have laid a trap for them. Should the Iranians respond with an assassination of their own, this would only expand the divide between Iran and Israel’s closest ally, the United States, because the Biden administration cannot engage with the Iranians while Iran is orchestrating attacks against Israeli officials. At the same time, Iran faces a dilemma; if it does not respond it risks demonstrating weakness and thereby inviting further assassinations and acts of sabotage. As such, there are hardline factions in Iran vowing revenge while others are urging “strategic restraint”.
The hard reality is that the Trump administration unilaterally violated the Iran nuclear agreement by repudiating it, yet the onus fell on Iran to exercise restraint by maintaining its commitments pursuant to the terms of the JCPOA, which it did for a full year after Trump’s withdrawal. When Israel assassinates Iran’s most important nuclear scientist, at a time when new US sanctions are being imposed as the Covid-19 pandemic spirals out of control, the onus again falls on Iran to exercise restraint.
MR: Are there issues that in your view are missing from coverage of the assassination?
PA: Beyond the headlines and politics, there are 83 million people in Iran who are struggling to live with the pandemic, sanctions, an increasingly repressive government, and the constant risk of war with either the US or states equipped with the most advanced US-made weapons. Their economic, psychological, and security hardships and anxieties are rarely told when such news headlines gloss the front pages; they go unseen while they should be front and center in our concerns.