The assassination of Iran’s chief nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh seems to be part of a larger plan to sabotage the possible renewal of a US-led nuclear deal with Iran, throttle its nuclear programme and provoke Tehran into a self-defeating retaliation.
On Friday, Fakhrizadeh, the head of Iran’s Research and Innovation Organisation under the Ministry of Defence and a key member of the nation’s Revolutionary Guards, was assassinated. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was quoted as saying the assassination was the handiwork of Israel.
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The first casualty is likely to be the much-anticipated revival of the nuclear deal between Tehran and the US-led group of countries, including Russia and the European Union. The outgoing US President Donald Trump in 2018 walked out of the deal amidst an unbridled display of hostility towards the Islamic regime in Tehran. Trump then imposed tough sanctions on Iran and arm-twisted other nations, including India, to follow suit.
The president-in-waiting Joe Biden has made it clear on several occasions that returning to the deal was among his top priorities. But the assassination of Fakhrizadeh is likely to impede the possibility, at least for the foreseeable future. For, the victim was no ordinary individual. He was a key figure behind Iran’s nuclear programme since its inception and an important cog in the wheel for Tehran.
The killing appears to have been a carefully planned move. Reports point to a recent “under the radar” meeting in Saudi Arabia’s new city Neom between crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and the duo comprising Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and whether that was a prelude to the assassination.
This meeting came after a visit to Israel by Pompeo, who then accompanied Netanyahu to Neom.
More recently, there were reports that Trump had been dissuaded by his close aides not to go ahead with a planned attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Friday’s assassination, if the related dots are connected, serves at least three obvious purposes for Iran’s enemies – Saudi Arabia and Israel, besides the US under Trump. One, it stalls Tehran’s nuclear programme. Two, the killing makes it that much more difficult for Joe Biden and his western allies to convince Iran to get back to the agreement.
And, third, the murder provokes the regime in Tehran to a point where it could retaliate recklessly. If the attack is major, it could justify an armed offensive against Iran by its US-led rivals. An attack of this nature will be tough for Iran to face, given that it is already on the back foot following the long drawn sanctions against it.
The assassination also points to a long held strategy of the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia who prefer to eliminate key players in rival countries to stymie their military and defence-related progress that could be a threat.
Earlier this year, the Trump administration authorised a drone attack that killed the legendary chief of Iran’s Quds Force Qassem Soleimani, who was the chief strategist behind Iran’s military and intelligence activities in the region. The outraged Khameini-led regime, blinded by fury, goofed up by shooting down what it thought was a fighter aircraft. It turned out the target was a Ukrainian commercial flight just taking off from Tehran airport to Kyiv. All 167 passengers on board perished.
The embarrassment probably caused Iran to desist from mounting a larger attack. It confined itself to bombing US bases in neighbouring Iraq, and even that, after prior warning to enable troops in them to move away.
For Israel, whose sworn enemy is Iran, any possibility of Tehran or for that matter any nation in the Arab world acquiring nuclear weapons is a matter of concern. Israel is however, well equipped with nuclear weapons though it has never officially acknowledged it.
In 1988, an Israeli nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu blew the whistle on his country’s capabilities to the British newspaper Sunday Times with clinching evidence, including photographs, etc. Despite that, Israel has never commented on its nuclear programme, neither acknowledging nor denying it.
Earlier, in 1981, Israel flew in fighter aircraft over Iraq and bombed the under-construction nuclear facility at Osirak giving a death blow to the then Baghdad government of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions.
Learning from its neighbour’s fate Iran, among its several nuclear reactors, built one underground at Natanz considered to be the most advanced and capable of processing weapon-grade uranium. However, even this was not secure enough. In July, a mystery fire broke out damaging key centrifuges under construction. Iran later blamed Israel for what international inspectors termed a “sabotage attack”.
Since then, Iran has resumed repair and construction of the damaged facility. Officials in Tehran have said they plan to build an even more advanced facility than the one damaged by the fire.
In 2003 Israel’s closest ally, the US, entered the scene alleging that Iran was developing nuclear weapons. The then George W Bush administration, after invading Iraq, turned its sights on Tehran’s nuclear programme. A multi-pronged perception war was mounted by the government in Washington against the alleged nuclear bomb project.
Iran has consistently denied it was anything but a weapons programme. It opened the doors to the inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) who have until now largely given a clean slate to the Islamic republic. Amidst this, the US’s Barack Obama administration in 2015 signed a nuclear deal with Iran as part of the P5 (permanent members of the UN Security Council) plus the European Union. This was opposed stridently by Saudi Arabia and Israel, who saw this as an opportunity for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons’ capability through the backdoor.
With Trump unilaterally backing off from the deal in 2018, the situation is back to square one. Moreover, with the assassinations of Soleimani in January this year and now Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the situation in the region is again on the brink.