Responsibility for the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh is still officially a matter of speculation, but it is highly likely that Israel did it. Israel has the motive, the methods, and the moxie. It also has the record, including not only a string of murders of other Iranian nuclear scientists some eight years ago but also a more widely used killing machine that has made Israel the world’s leader in targeted assassinations.
The killing of Fakhrizadeh was not a blow for nuclear non-proliferation. The demise of no one individual will make a significantdent in Iran’s nuclear program. Fakhrizadeh’s work on a possible nuclear weapon took place in the past, before Tehran suspended that work some 17 years ago. The knowledge on a shelf remains, even if this man does not.
The killing did not pre-empt an Iranian attack or any other untoward Iranian action, and instead is more likely to stimulate such an attack. Iran, which has no nuclear weapons and as a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is committed never to acquire any, closed all possible paths to a bomb several years ago through the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the multilateral agreement that gutted Iran’s nuclear program and opened what remained of it to intrusive international monitoring.
The contrast with the state that killed Fakhrizadeh is stark. Israel, which is not a party to the NPT, is generally believed to possess a sizable arsenal of nuclear weapons. It has acquired that stockpile clandestinely, closed off from any international scrutiny or regulatory regime, and with Israel never admitting what it has.
The recent assassination did not even serve a purpose comparable to, say, the extraterritorial rubout of a terrorist who will never see the inside of a courtroom and, it might be argued, can be eliminated as a threat in no other way. Instead, the assassination itself was an act of terrorism. It certainly meets the official definition that the State Department uses in compiling statistics on international terrorism, which is “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience”.
Failure to acknowledge that reality while fulminating about terrorism in other contexts or at the hands of other actors represents a double standard. The double standard becomes all the clearer by imagining what the reaction would be if Iran or someone else had assassinated an Israeli nuclear scientist — or an American one.
The Netanyahu government’s evident objective — probably pursued with the encouragement of the lame duck Trump administration, as part of its salting of the earth on its way out the door — is to subvert the Biden administration’s diplomacy with Iran and efforts to return to compliance with the JCPOA. The timing of the Fakhrizadeh assassination is too much of a coincidence to have merely reflected when an operational opportunity happened to arise.
A dangerous road ahead
The next phase in this story depends on the Iranian reaction. If the leadership in Tehran can resist Iranians’ understandable anger and desire for revenge, Netanyahu will at least have humiliated Iran and shown it to be weak. But his favored scenario would be for Iran to do something in retaliation that in turn could become the rationale for escalated military action against Iran by Israel and especially by the United States. The fact that President Trump has already looked into a possible attack on Iran must lead Netanyahu to conclude that he has a good chance of instigating just such a military confrontation, which would be his most effective way yet of pre-emptively trashing the incoming U.S. administration’s diplomacy.
Instigation and provocation of Iran already were part of an Israeli campaign before the Fakhrizadeh killing and before the U.S. election. A probable facet of that campaign was a series of unclaimed explosions in Iran this summer, which hit not only military-related and nuclear facilities but also other targets such as power plants and oil pipelines.
Netanyahu’s government has consistently promoted unending, unqualified hostility toward Iran aimed at keeping it forever ostracized, sanctioned, and loathed. This campaign of permanent confrontation keeps a potential regional rival weak and aims to keep Israel’s U.S. patron away from doing any diplomatic or other business with Tehran. Keeping Iran as a perpetual bête noire to be blamed for everything wrong in the Middle East helps to deflect blame for those wrongs from others, especially Israel. The value to Netanyahu’s government of the bête noire as an all-purpose distraction is reflected in how often that government responds to unwelcome attention to its own conduct by proclaiming, “But the real problem in our region is Iran…”
Partly, but by no means wholly, because of this Israeli demonization campaign, Iran’s conduct routinely gets discussed in the United States in shorthand terms that refer to Tehran’s “malign” or “destabilizing” behavior and support for terrorism. The shorthand obscures inattention to exactly what Iran has been doing and why it does it. It leaves unsaid that most of what Iran does in the region is reaction to what others do — including in response to what Israel has done with terrorism or other destructive action.
By any objective measure of destabilizing behavior, Israel in recent times has been doing at least as much as Iran to destabilize the Middle East, and probably more. This is true of terrorism, sabotage, and other clandestine operations, as illustrated most recently by the assassination of Fakhrizadeh.
It is true of the use of violent proxies, which in Israel’s case has included an Iranian cult/terrorist group that has American blood on its hands. It is true of aggressive military action across international borders — including Israel’s current sustained campaign of aerial assaults in Syria — which is much different from a consensual relationship in which military assistance is given in support of, and in alliance with, an incumbent government.
And it certainly is true when looking at who is urging a return to diplomacy to settle differences, and who instead is subverting diplomacy and promoting confrontation, even to the point of trying to trigger a new war.
A policy challenge for the new administration
All this is grim reality for the incoming Biden administration as it shapes its relationship with Israel. The smart money in Washington is betting against Biden spending much of his precious political capital in trying to make progress in resolving the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That’s too bad for the Palestinians and for justice and human rights, but it also is too bad for regional stability, especially given how Israel’s subjugation of the Palestinians has long been a prime motivator for extremism and terrorism.
The destabilization goes well beyond the Palestinian conflict, however, and includes the Israeli terrorism, sabotage, and provocations aimed at Iran. The grimmest of the grim realities is that the current government of Israel is not only actively trying to subvert the new administration’s foreign policy but also is trying to drag the United States into a new Middle East war.
That is an unfriendly act. The Biden administration somehow will have to take that into account in shaping a bilateral relationship that has been characterized — even before the extreme obeisance toward Israel of the Trump administration — by protective vetoes in the U.N. Security Council and $3.8 billion annually in unrestricted aid. The Biden people can start by being honest — consistent with the president-elect’s pledge of truthfulness — about the sources of instability in the Middle East.
Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He is also an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy.
There’s no question that war leaves behind its lingering destruction. This includes both harm to people and to the environment. As the world marks the second year of Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, we must reflect on the impact of war on Ukraine, the resiliency of its people and global response to resolving the issues of bomb contamination.
Roughly one-third of Ukraine's territory is contaminated. This is the size of an average country in Europe. Ukraine is currently experiencing the worst environmental disaster in terms of soil pollution per unit of time.
Toxic elements such as lead, cadmium, arsenic, and mercury leach from ammunition and weapons into the soil. If potential areas of contamination are not identified and recorded in time, harmful substances can enter the food chain and become carcinogenic. This threatens global food security and export opportunities. Failure to act now could result in the deterioration of human health.
Prior to the war, about 400 million people worldwide relied on Ukraine for their food supply making this a large-scale problem. Spent ammunition and chemical weapons can contaminate soil for decades or longer. Land is not a renewable resource. Soils and their fertile layer are formed over thousands of years. Just 1 cm of soil is formed in 200-400 years, and 20 cm in 5,000-6,000 years. Military operations that take place for 2 years like in the case of Ukraine can destroy what has been formed over thousands of years.
Contaminations left behind from war are nothing new. We know this from wars in SE Asia, conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, and the list goes on. It’s no surprise then that at least 50 countries are impacted by landmines and other explosives. The good news is there are solutions to the long lasting impacts of conflicts like unexploded ordnance on humans, all living things and our planet.
One example is a project called “Assessing farmland and ecosystems damage in north-eastern Ukraine from the Russian invasion” (UA-UK-CH) led by this article's co-author Dr. Olena Melnyk. This project is a joint initiative with researchers from Ukraine, England and Switzerland aimed at enhancing the capacity for mapping, environmental monitoring, and managing the effects of war-induced damage on Ukraine's agricultural land, utilizing existing networks of scientists and field-based analysis to safeguard food security. The first component of the project involves gathering ground truth data on the damage inflicted on Ukrainian farmland, which is then utilized to analyze the extent of soil pollution and calibrate remote sensing data.
The second component focuses on developing an application for mapping farmland to document hazards and contamination and prioritize land for production and remediation.
The third aspect involves building up “citizen science” by training non-combatant experts to inspect and analyze contaminated farmlands and contribute to land mapping efforts.
The fourth component aims to facilitate the decontamination and remediation of Ukrainian lands to restore agricultural productivity while promoting post-war environmentally friendly agricultural practices to ensure sustainability and climate neutrality. This project will enable Ukrainian farmers to avoid dangerous areas and prioritize the land for targeted decontamination. The data collected from this research project will help inform government agencies, civil societies and other stakeholders.
The United States is the largest funder of global humanitarian demining. Since 1993, the U.S. has provided at least $4.2 billion to over 100 countries from Laos to Ukraine. Funding is invested in activities such as bomb clearance, victims’ assistance and explosive risk education.
Environmental research like the UA-UK-CH in Ukraine has proven to be necessary and important to the future of soil rehabilitation post conflict. This should be a norm and donor countries, funders, academic institutions can leverage the future findings from Ukraine and leverage it as a model that can inspire research in other war impacted countries — especially 50-year-old legacy contaminations in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam—where no study has been done.
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Judge Nawaf Salam, president of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), speaks during a public hearing held by ICJ to allow parties to give their views on the legal consequences of Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories before eventually issuing a non-binding legal opinion in The Hague, Netherlands, February 19, 2024. REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw
The gulf between the United States and the rest of the world — in particular the Global South — on the Israel-Palestine conflict remains sharp and wide.
This was demonstrated yet again at The Hague last week, where the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is hearing a case triggered by a U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) resolution in December 2022 seeking an advisory opinion on the “legal consequences” of the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
The case has taken on even greater significance in the current context of Israel’s military action in Gaza and the West Bank. The Israeli assault (in response to Hamas’s October 7 attack) has led to around 30,000 Palestinian deaths and widespread destruction of homes, mosques, churches, hospitals, and community centers with seemingly no end in sight. A BBC investigation at the end of January found that between 50% and 61% of the Gaza Strip’s buildings had been destroyed or damaged in the war, while over 80% of the population had been displaced.
This case also comes on the heels of last month’s ICJ hearing in a separate case brought by South Africa alleging serious violations of the 1948 Genocide Convention by Israel in its current assault on Gaza. In that case, the ICJ issued a provisional order that Israel’s actions in the current war against the Palestinians could plausibly be considered genocide. Other Global South states have initiated measures at the International Criminal Court. Overall, states representing close to 60% of the Global South’s population have either directly or indirectly backed international legal action on Palestine, as our previous analysis showed.
Last week’s proceedings were the early stage of the UNGA-triggered case, in which the oral arguments focused on whether the court has jurisdiction over the matter. Of the 49 countries and three international organizations (the League of Arab States, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and the African Union) that argued before the court’s judges — the most of any case in the ICJ’s history — only four argued that the court lacked jurisdiction and should therefore not render an opinion: the United States, the United Kingdom, Hungary, and Fiji.
Although this round of argumentation centered around the question of the court’s jurisdiction, the representatives who spoke on behalf of their respective countries presented their view of Israel’s occupation as well as current and past military activity in Palestine. Cuba went as far as to explicitly argue that Israel’s military aggression in the current war amounts to a “genocide.” Several others, including Bolivia and Chile, argued that the occupation violates international law, and should therefore end.
The extent to which this issue resonates across the Global South is evident in the fact that Indonesia, the world’s fourth-most populous country and a U.S. partner, so strongly supports the Palestinian cause that the country’s foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, left the G20 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Brazil to personally present Indonesia’s argument before the court. She argued that Israel’s “unlawful occupation and its atrocities must stop and should not be normalized or recognized.” Indonesia sees Palestine as the last unresolved issue of decolonization, which it is mandated to oppose according to its constitution.
Bangladesh spoke of violations of three basic tenets of international law: the right to self-determination; the prohibition to acquire territory by force; and the prohibition of racial discrimination and apartheid. Namibia also cited apartheid in its arguments, while The Maldives spoke of appropriation of water resources for Palestine, among other things. The African Union, collectively representing 54 African states, described “an asymmetrical situation in which an oppressed people is confronted with an occupying power.”
Other Global South states arguing in favor of the ICJ’s jurisdiction in this case even called out the United States by name. Guyana, for example, said that the U.S.’s argument fails because the U.S. wrongly claims that there is an ongoing peace negotiation between Israel and Palestine, therefore leaving no legal authority for the ICJ to deliver an opinion on this issue.
Algeria also explicitly said that this case not only stains Israel’s image, but also hurts that of the United States, as the U.S. government continues to support Israel despite its continued violation of international law.
Fiji was the only Global South state in the hearings to broadly align with Israel and the United States in its arguments. It argued that a two-state solution could only come about when (Palestinian) terrorism ended. It also stated that Israel had not agreed to the case, the ICJ approach circumvents the Oslo process, and the information available to the court was one-sided. Additionally, Zambia struck a cautious tone, supporting a two-state solution but also saying that a solution should not “squarely blame one party.”
The deep opposition to U.S. and Israeli positions was not just confined to the Global South. Most core U.S. allies in the Global North were also opposed. For example, France argued that Israel’s settlements in Palestine are illegal. France also asked the court to render an opinion on the extent to which the Palestinians have suffered damages, and asked that the court consider how much restitution or compensation is appropriate for the damages suffered by Palestinians under Israeli occupation.
Even the United Kingdom — the lone core U.S. ally aligned with American and Israeli positions in the case — called out Israel’s occupation. The country’s representative stated that although the UK opposes ICJ jurisdiction in this case, in part because the scope of a fact-finding mission would be too broad in the context of an ongoing conflict, Israel’s continued and expanding occupation of Palestine is illegal under international law.
China and Russia, the two great power rivals of the United States, both supported the majority opinion, arguing in favor of the ICJ’s jurisdiction in the case and against Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
This comes as growing security, economic, and political ties are being formed by the Chinese and Russians with states across the Global South. The Russian mercenary group known as the Wagner Group — recently rebranded as Africa Corps — has tapped into strong anti-Western sentiment to form military and security ties with states across central and west Africa, largely replacing unpopular and outdated U.S. and French security projects in the area.
Both China and Russia are also leading members of BRICS, in which they are in a de facto coalition with leading middle powers of the Global South looking to plug existing and major gaps in the current international system as well as prominently project their voice on the global stage.
Washington’s isolation on Palestine may not have mattered much if we were still in a unipolar world. But with relative power slowly diffusing away from Washington, the United States may benefit from shifting its policies and bridging its position with the rest of the world on the highly emotive issue of Palestine that is causing enormous human suffering and already beginning to destabilize the wider region.
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any a peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.