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 significant dent 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.