Commentary: Assassinating top scientist makes killing Iran's nuclear programme harder
The Biden administration must now navigate a minefield, says the Financial Times’ David Gardner.
LONDON: “Remember that name, Fakhrizadeh.” Thus spoke Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, in a characteristically histrionic moment during his April 2018 presentation on Iran’s nuclear programme.
No one in the Middle East is now likely to forget the name of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s top nuclear physicist, who was ambushed and killed by gunmen near Tehran late on Friday.
Especially not the Iranians – any more than they will forget Qassem Soleimani, the Revolutionary Guard commander of Iran’s foreign legion, assassinated by a US missile strike at Baghdad airport in January.
ISRAEL'S LATEST HIT?
Israel, rather than the US, is probably responsible for killing Fakhrizadeh, just as it is widely blamed or, depending on the viewpoint, credited with murdering four nuclear scientists on his staff from 2010 to 2012.
But those hits came before Iran reached an accord in 2015 with the US, then led by President Barack Obama, and five world powers to constrain its nuclear programme and allow international monitors to verify agreed limits.
Outgoing US president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from this deal in 2018, reimposing sanctions he has continued to ratchet up to strangle Iran’s economy.
Joe Biden, president-elect after defeating Mr Trump in this month’s elections and Mr Obama’s former vice-president, has said he intends to rejoin the 2015 nuclear compact, provided Iran returns to the set limits on uranium enrichment it has breached in response to the US pullout.
SCORCHED EARTH POLICY
That goal, already complicated, has just been made a lot more difficult, which is surely the intention of Trump and Netanyahu, as well as their Sunni Arab allies in the Gulf led by Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia.
Before it gracelessly departs, the Trump team looks bent on a scorched earth policy in the Middle East to make the incoming Biden administration’s road back to diplomacy more difficult.
Beyond imposing yet more sanctions, Mr Trump is reported recently to have sought advice on the feasibility of air strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities. This month Mike Pompeo, secretary of state, brokered a surprise meeting in Saudi Arabia between Mr Netanyahu and Prince Mohammed.
Ostensibly about detente and “normalisation” of relations, it was also about a united front not just against Tehran but Mr Biden’s Iran policy, setting off alarm bells across the region.
Until now, hostilities against Iran have remained in the realm of shadow war, hit squads and proxy conflicts between Sunni and Shia from Iraq to Lebanon and Syria to Yemen. But the Fakhrizadeh killing upped the ante.
A RECKONING WILL COME
The hopeful assumption is there will not be a real war. But there will be a reckoning.
Fakhrizadeh, sometimes compared to Robert Oppenheimer, father of the world’s first atomic bomb in 1945, is believed by western intelligence agencies to have led Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon until it was halted in 2003.
Tehran denies intent to build a bomb but has been determined to master the complete nuclear cycle that would enable it to do so.
The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, and exit from a deal that had successfully eliminated Tehran’s former nuclear fuel hoard, has led Iran to recreate a stockpile of enriched uranium.
It is now 12 times the size of the accord’s ceiling and of higher than allowed purity.
While this is not close to weapons-grade uranium, Mr Trump has pushed Iran closer to it, and Mr Netanyahu has urged the US not to return to previous arrangements that controlled production.
POLITICAL GIFT TO IRANIAN HARDLINERS
Those who resist Iran’s growing power in the Middle East are jubilant about the Fakhrizadeh death.
But Iranian physics cannot be killed, nor can the growing conviction among Iranians that America – the Great Satan in the Islamic Republic’s narrative – cannot be trusted since it reneges on international deals. This is a political gift to hardliners.
The Biden administration must navigate a minefield. It is not just the nuclear deal that Mr Obama secured in 2015.
The incoming president must also find a way to deal with Soleimani’s legacy of paramilitary militias – armed with missiles – who have forged a Shia Iranian corridor from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean.
Yet how is a bankrupt Iran to deal with the region’s constellation of failing states without seeking terms not just with its neighbours but the world?
Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen all face economic contractions vastly greater than the ravage inflicted by Covid-19.
Iran, and Persia before it, has a reputation for strategic patience. It will now be tested.