Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was not exactly a household name in America. But nuclear experts and intelligence services around the world were very aware of his importance. Fakhrizadeh, who was assassinated last week, has been described as the “father of Iran’s nuclear program.” Some compared him to Robert Oppenheimer, who led the Manhattan Project to produce an atomic bomb during World War II. In 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly identified Fakhrizadeh as director of Iran’s nuclear weapons project during a televised presentation focused on thousands of documents Israeli agents had stolen from Iran’s “atomic archives.”
Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was not exactly a household name in America. But nuclear experts and intelligence services around the world were very aware of his importance.
Iranian leaders quickly blamed Israel and threatened revenge. One far-right Iranian newspaper with ties to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei demanded an immediate missile strike against the Israeli port city of Haifa. So far Netanyahu’s government has declined to comment about the killing, but numerous intelligence sources believe the attack was conducted by Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service.
This past year has been a violent one for Iran. Jan. 3 will be the first anniversary of the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Soleimani by an American drone. In July, Iran was hit by a series of unusual explosions at facilities, including ones engaged in nuclear enrichment. Al Qaeda’s second-in-command, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, was gunned down on a Tehran street in August. Both attacks were attributed to Israeli agents, and the latter is believed to have been an American request.
These events, coupled with the most recent assassination, will clearly exacerbate tensions in the Middle East in the waning days of the Trump administration. The timing is concerning, as are the potential implications for President-elect Joe Biden’s administration. The Trump administration has avoided a truly major national security crisis over the past four years, but these last eight weeks may be some of its most dangerous.
During the presidential campaign, Biden indicated that the United States would try to return to the Iran nuclear agreement — technically the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — if Tehran agreed to fully comply with its requirements. The JCPOA was signed by the Obama administration in 2015, but President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the accord in 2018 and replaced it with the “maximum pressure campaign” of economic sanctions against Iran. Netanyahu firmly opposed the agreement from the onset and was delighted by Trump’s decision to scrap it. Can Biden really return to the agreement amid the current escalation in tensions?
Israeli leaders have long described Iran as an existential threat to the Jewish state. The Iranian regime has also repeatedly described Israel as an enemy. During a 30-minute speech to the Iranian people earlier this year, Khamenei referred to the Jewish state as a “cancer” or “tumor” that will be “uprooted and destroyed.”
Obviously, Israeli leaders’ concerns about Iran were exacerbated during the past two decades by concerns that Tehran was pursuing the development of a nuclear weapon. In response, Israel conducted a policy of “targeted killings” against Iranian scientists beginning in 2007 to blunt this effort. This strategy appeared to have been suspended in 2012, but the Fakhrizadeh killing suggests otherwise. (Meanwhile, many experts believe Fakhrizadeh is hardly irreplaceable.)
No country has benefited more from the Trump administration than Israel.
The security situation in the region has also changed significantly since Trump’s inauguration, which will further complicate any effort by Biden to negotiate with Tehran. Netanyahu recently argued that an attack by Iran could come at any time from various other countries in the region. And the proliferation of precision-guided conventional warheads based in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza or Iraq is now a significant threat to Israel. The Iranian cruise missile attack on the Saudi oil facility at Abqaiq in September 2019 further demonstrated the region’s vulnerabilities to a conventional attack by Tehran.
No country has benefited more from the Trump administration than Israel. In January, Netanyahu described Trump as “the greatest friend that Israel has ever had in the White House.” Consequently, the Israeli leader may have believed he could conduct this operation with at least the tacit support of the departing administration. The killing’s chilling effect on any future negotiations with Tehran is just a bonus.
Netanyahu is currently the subject of ongoing corruption investigations, and there is widespread criticism of his government’s handling of Covid-19. Consequently, he needs a domestic political win. Israel is likely feeling further emboldened by the recent Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain; both nations are opponents of Iran.
Less clear is Washington’s role, although Trump likely supported any effort to prevent a reversal in his policies toward Iran. So far Iranian officials have not condemned the U.S., and it is unknown whether Israel notified Washington in advance. But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had visited Israel and other Gulf countries to discuss Iran only a few days before the attack and told reporters traveling with him that “all options are on the table” with respect to Iran. It had also been widely reported that Trump had consulted his senior advisers about potential military options against Iran’s main nuclear site. Indeed, Israeli defense forces had been placed on a higher level of alert due to the possibility of an American attack against Iran.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has not minced words. Rouhani blamed Israel over the weekend, claiming the attack was an attempt to create turmoil prior to Biden’s inauguration. Iran would respond at the “right time,” he said. Others Iranian leaders have called for swift retaliation. But retaliation could come from elsewhere within Rouhani’s regime. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard leadership or even some rogue element could take action that would further escalate the crisis, especially if it resulted in American or Israeli casualties.
The problem for Iran is that absent either a full or partial return to the nuclear agreement, an economic recovery is unlikely. But pride demands revenge for the killings of Soleimani and Fakhrizadeh. Politically this strike also strengthens the hand of anti-American conservatives in Iran in the run-up to their own presidential elections in June 2021.
Major wars have often occurred due to chance. In 1888, then-German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck observed that a major European war would occur due to “some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.” In 1914, a little known Austro-Hungarian prince was assassinated on the streets of Sarajevo igniting a train of events that led to World War I.
President John F. Kennedy was reported to have been greatly influenced by Barbara Tuchman’s book, “The Guns of August” which described the outbreak of this catastrophic conflict. The book was released in 1962, shortly before the Cuban missile crisis. During the crisis, Kennedy is reported to have said to his brother Robert: “I wish we could send a copy of that book to every Navy officer on every ship right now.” Hopefully, someone in the White House has read it.