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The assassination of an Iranian scientist and the double-standards of American outrage

We’re bombarded with concern about Iranian state-sponsored terrorism, but why the silence when our friends do it?

Analysis | Middle East

Another day, another sleek Israeli (allegedly) assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist in broad daylight outside Tehran.

“An Eye for an Eye: Zionists Must Prepare Themselves” screamed the Saturday headline on Kayhan, Iran’s hardline newspaper, a day after the car Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was travelling in with his wife was sprayed by bullets.  

Like so many other targeted killings by Israeli intelligence agency Mossad on Iranian scientists over the last 10 years (Fakhrizadeh was the fifth), the attack unfurled like a spy movie thriller. 

Fars news agency in Iran reported that after three bullets hit Fakrizadeh in the side and the back, a bodyguard that came to cover him was also shot multiple times. The attacking pick-up truck then exploded. The entire remote-controlled operation was over in less than three minutes. 

Previous assassinations of Iranian scientists by Israeli intelligence (who of course neither confirm nor deny these attacks) have seen nuclear scientists blown up after bombs were placed under their car. In 2012, nuclear physicist Darioush Rezaeinejad was shot five times by motorcycle-riding gunmen in front of his home after picking up his daughter from kindergarten. 

And yet, movies on Netflix inspired by Mossad operations have probably received more public attention than attacks in Tehran. 

Public discourse on these state-sponsored acts of terrorism (we wouldn’t hesitate to characterize these acts as terrorism if Iran assassinated an Israeli or U.S scientist, would we?) has historically been largely absent: Washington and Tel Aviv have had such a long-running alliance and shared intelligence regarding Iran that targeted killings not only go unquestioned but in the words of Israeli journalist Gideon Levy, are considered “treasonous” to even pose.

Was it not considered legitimate, for instance, to murder Thabat Ahmad Thabat, the leader of Palestinian militant group Fatah, in December 2000? Levy asks in Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “Was it not permitted to murder Khalil al Wazir (known as Abu Jihad) in his bed in front of his wife and children in Tunis in 1988? Don’t make Israel’s security cult laugh. Of course it was allowed. To Israel, everything is allowed.”

The rules are different for Palestinians. Consider the life sentence of the assassins who planned the killing of Israeli tourism minister Rehavam Ze’evi in 2001. “The murderers of Abu Jihad became cabinet ministers and heroes. Ze’evi spilled more innocent blood than Abu Jihad ever did,” Levy says. 

The question has to be asked: Why does Israel always get a free pass? After Fakrizadeh was murdered,Agnes Callamard, a U.N. Special Rapporteur and Director of Global Freedom of Expression at Columbia University, tweeted that the assassination was “a violation of international human rights law prohibiting the arbitrary deprivation of life and a violation of the UN Charter that disallow the use of force extraterritorially in times of peace.”

Yet it is Iran that continues to be considered a global threat. This, despite the fact that the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, repeatedly confirmed in 2018 that Iran was complying with the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal, which is now on life support (a finding also shared by U.S. and Israeli intelligence officials). Yes — the IAEA recently declared that Iran now has more than 10 times the amount of enriched uranium permitted under the nuclear agreement but that was a retaliatory move Tehran took after Trump reinstated sanctions. And there is still no evidence, confirmed by the IAEA, that Iran is moving towards weaponizing its program.

Put simply: Iran today has zero nuclear bombs while Israel is widely believed to possess 90 plutonium-based nuclear warheads and to have produced enough plutonium for 100-200 weapons, according to the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

Tehran for its part says it will respond to Israel’s latest assassination with “strategic patience” — an approach that gives the government space and time to deal with President-elect Joe Biden, who has said he wants to rejoin the nuclear deal. But patience is contingent on the next steps of an erratic U.S. president; fears run high that Trump could lash out at Iran before his term ends on January 20. 

In a move that reflected just how high regional tensions are, Tehran reportedly called Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed on Sunday and said Iran would attack the United Arab Emirates in the event of any U.S. attack on Iran.

Iranians are enraged, and with just cause. In a pandemic year, they’re grappling not only with suffocating U.S. sanctions and their own security apparatus's failure to protect the country’s esteemed nuclear scientists, but quiet censorship by the powerful elites in Silicon Valley (in addition to the Iranian government’s overt forms of censorship). 

Indeed, since Fakhrizadeh’s murder, multiple Iranians have reported seeing Instagram posts lamenting his death (note: no violent content) rigorously deleted after racking up thousands of likes and shares. It’s not particularly surprising, since Instagram and its parent company Facebook told CNN earlier this year they were removing posts that expressed support for slain Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani to comply with U.S. sanctions.

But it does speak yet again to the absence of public discourse around the powerful and unchallenged U.S.-Israeli relationship. It also speaks to the hypocritical manner in how we apply one of our most cherished values: Freedom of speech. Clearly, it’s a right that is only afforded to those whose views align with people in power.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, in Tel Aviv, on April 29, 2018. (State Department photo by Ron Przysucha)
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