The Assassination that Could Bring War to the Middle East & End the Iran Nuclear Deal
Steve Shaw reports on the assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, which could be part of Israel and Donald Trump’s last-ditch effort to bury Barack Obama’s nuclear deal
A chilling photograph of a Nissan Saloon car, its windshield peppered with bullet holes and a trail of blood staining the roadside, tells the story of an assassination that could spark a new war in the Middle East. It could also be the final nail in the coffin for former US President Barack Obama’s landmark nuclear deal with Iran.
Early in the morning on 28 November, Iranian state media reported the death of senior Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. He had been travelling through the small city of Absard, east of Iran’s capital Tehran, when his car was forced to stop by a truck loaded with explosives. Fars news agency reported that it was detonated moments later, putting an end to any chance of escape. Then came at least five gunmen who opened fire on the car.
Fakhrizadeh survived the attack but died after being rushed to hospital.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that “terrorists” from Israel were to blame. “This cowardice – with serious indications of Israeli role – shows desperate warmongering of perpetrators,” he added.
The country’s Defence Minister Brigadier General Amir Hatami also urged the “international community – and especially the European Union” to condemn the attack as an “act of state terror”.
Israel has denied involvement.
For years, Fakhrizadeh had been linked to Iran’s controversial nuclear programme.
In 2014, The New York Times reported that Western intelligence officials considered him to be the “closest thing Iran has to Robert Oppenheimer, who guided the Manhattan Project to develop the world’s first nuclear weapon”.
Iran has insisted its nuclear programme – dubbed Project Amad – is solely for peaceful purposes, but the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has regularly claimed otherwise. In a presentation two years ago, he told reporters to “remember” Fakhrizadeh’s name: “Remember that name, Fakhrizadeh, he says the general aim is to announce the closure of Project Amad but then he adds special activities – you know what that is – special activities will be carried out under the title of scientific knowhow development. This is exactly what Iran has proceeded to do.”
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, promised Israel retaliation for the attack: “We will strike as thunder at the killers of this oppressed martyr and will make them regret their action,” he said.
Last-Ditch Effort for War
In the wake of the assassination, many analysts have speculated if Iran’s threats to retaliate play directly into the hands of the possible attackers – Israel and the US.
If Israel was involved, it would be highly unlikely that an attack of this scale would have taken place without Tel Aviv first getting the green-light from Donald Trump’s administration. On 16 November, The New York Times revealed that the President had been seeking to launch his own strike against Iran’s main nuclear site but was dissuaded due to the risk of war.
Despite this direct attack being taken off the table, The New York Times reported that Trump was still be looking at “ways to strike Iranian assets and allies”. It is possible that this assassination is the US and Israel’s attempt to lure Tehran into war without being the overt aggressors. It also comes weeks after renewed concern about Iran’s nuclear programme, highlighted by the International Atomic Energy Agency. It said that Iran’s uranium stockpile was now 12 times larger than permitted under the nuclear deal which Trump abandoned in 2018. It is still being supported by Europe.
Trump has been eager to support Israel and Saudi Arabia ever since taking office and his administration’s Middle East policies over the past four years have been heavily in favour of those two countries. Trump showed his allegiance with Iran’s two biggest adversaries just 12 days after taking office, when former US National Security Advisor Michael Flynn told reporters that “as of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice”.
In 2019, the US was also on the verge of launching a full-blown military strike against Tehran simply for its alleged downing of an American surveillance drone but Trump pulled back. Less than a year later, Trump approved the assassination of Major General Qassem Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force and the man behind the country’s military operations across the Middle East.
The killing of Sulemani was essentially an unprovoked act of war and the Pentagon attempted to justify it as a “defensive action” against unspecified future threats. It didn’t take long for Netanyahu to heap praise on the US for acting “swiftly, forcefully and decisively”.
As with the killing of Fakhrizadeh, Iran vowed revenge on the US but did not take the bait of launching a war.
“Short of a military invasion, this is how war in Iran can take place in the year 2020,” Iran policy analyst Adnan Tabatabai said in an interview with Al Jazeera. He explained that no one knows for sure who is behind the killing of Fakhrizadeh but it is likely that both Israel and the US had a hand in it, especially “given the past three weeks and the many trips that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had in the region”.
One of the visits included a secretive meeting between Pompeo, Netanyahu and the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. The Saudis deny the meeting ever took place and no information has been published about what was discussed, if indeed it did happen. However, the Washington-based think tank the Brookings Institute stated that all three parties have a common goal of “Biden-proofing US policy toward Iran”.
President-elect Joe Biden was Vice-President under Barack Obama and it was that administration that brought in the landmark nuclear deal.
Under the agreement, Iran would limit its nuclear activities and allow in international inspectors in return for the lifting of crippling economic sanctions.
Israel and Saudi Arabia were furious about the plan. To the Saudis, the deal meant that Iran had an opportunity to improve its economy and, in turn, its influence in the region. This is seen as a major issue for Saudi Arabia, which has a foreign policy focused on its Sunni opposition to Shiite Iranian influence in the Middle East. It has been speculated that Obama agreed to support the bloody Saudi war in Yemen – a war that is widely regarded as a proxy war with Iran – as a way to appease the kingdom.
Meanwhile, Israel is considered the first and only country in the Middle East to have acquired nuclear weapons. The Israeli Government has never acknowledged this or published any account of its nuclear activities, but Obama’s deal posed a threat to remove this military advantage. This is because it was only set to be in place for 15 years and would not mean that Iran had to destroy its nuclear facilities, raising the prospect that Iran could still create a nuclear weapon in the future.
Trump sided with his allies in the Middle East in 2018 and abandoned the nuclear deal, leaving the European Union scrambling to keep it alive. Netanyahu has since called the EU’s continued support of the deal “absurd and outrageous”. But Biden’s election has brought new hope that the US will end its unwavering support for Israel and the Saudis and re-join its allies in support of the deal.
Biden previously called Trump’s decision to abandon the deal “reckless”. In an article for CNN in September, he wrote that if Iran “returns to strict compliance” with the deal, “the United States would re-join the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations”. Netanyahu’s first reaction to Biden’s election was to declare that “there must be no return to the previous nuclear agreement”.
If it is proven to have been involved, Israel’s motive and indeed the Trump administration’s motive for assassinating Fakhrizadeh could be either to spark a war, to sabotage Biden’s attempt to return to the nuclear deal, or both.
Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department official, wrote on Twitter: “The reason for assassinating Fakhrizadeh wasn’t to impede Iran’s war potential, it was to impede diplomacy.”
In less than two months, it will be Joe Biden who has to deal with the fall-out and to repair relations with Iran if he has any hope of continuing the nuclear deal. This will already have been made more challenging as hardliners in Iran will almost certainly call for an end to talks with the US in the wake of the killing.
The only hope Biden has is to wait and pray that Iran shows restraint in the coming weeks. Any drastic action against Israel or even the US in revenge and Biden may be left with little option but to continue on a dangerous path he is forced on in the final weeks of the Trump administration.
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