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Was the assassination in Iran another Israeli effort to sabotage JCPOA?

Previous killings all took place at times when Washington and Tehran appeared to be on the cusp of a diplomatic breakthrough.

Analysis | Middle East

While no one has yet taken responsibility for the latest assassination of an Iranian official, if the initial press speculation pointing to Israel is correct, what may be its motives and goals?

What we do know is that a senior officer in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, was shot to death Sunday while parked in front of his home in Tehran by two unidentified gunmen on a motorbike.

We also know that very few countries have the motivation and capability to conduct an assassination in Iran and that Israel — possibly using members of the Mujahedin-e Khalq cult as proxies — has assassinated a number of Iranian scientists in the same fashion in the past.

As noted Sunday by the Washington Post, 

[Iran’s] accusation [of Israel’s responsibility], as well as the style of the brazen killing, raised the possibility of a link with other motorbike slayings previously attributed to Israel in Iran, such as those targeting the country’s nuclear scientists.

The most recent high-profile assassination attributed to Israel was that of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the head of Iran’s atomic energy program, in November 2020, just two months before the inauguration as president of Joe Biden who had promised during his election campaign to return the United States to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal from which President Trump had withdrawn. 

According to subsequent press accounts, Israel or its agents killed Fakkhrizadeh using a remote AI robot that was smuggled into Iran in pieces and assembled there.

If these assassinations were intended to substantially set back progress in Iran’s nuclear program, they proved largely counter-productive. After each assassination, Tehran’s nuclear program appears to have accelerated and has now reached the point where it will have accumulated enough enriched uranium to manufacture one or two nuclear bombs within as little as two weeks if it decided to do so, according to most experts.

And while these assassinations appeared unrelated to the nuclear program’s progress except insofar as they seem to have inspired its escalation, they did coincide with times when the United States and Iran appeared to be on the cusp of a diplomatic breakthrough.

Indeed, the Obama team condemned Israel’s earlier assassinations precisely because it knew the murders wouldn’t set back Iran’s nuclear program and that their only intent and impact would be to set back diplomacy. The assassination of one scientist in 2012 — just as the Obama administration began quietly moving toward negotiations that would culminate in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — provoked exceptionally strong denunciations by top U.S. officials.

The identity of the latest assassination victim in Iran may give us a clue as to possible intent.  Hassan Sayyad Khodaei was a colonel in the IRGC — the very same organization whose terror listing by the State Department under Trump reportedly constitutes the last sticking point for the United States to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal. 

Although the Biden team knows and has acknowledged that keeping the IRGC on the terror list does nothing to advance Washington’s interest in curbing Iran’s nuclear program and that the Trump administration put them on the list precisely to make it far more politically difficult for any successor to return to the JCPOA, it has so far refused to delist them.

There have been reports that Tehran may be open to compromise on its insistence that the IRGC be delisted as a condition for its own return to the JCPOA’s curbs on uranium enrichment and other key provisions. The foreign minister of Qatar, which has been mediating between Washington and Tehran, said as much Saturday. Was a possible breakthrough at hand?

If Israel is behind this killing, is that why it targeted an IRGC officer instead of a nuclear scientist? Did it calculate that killing an IRGC officer will so provoke IRGC and regime hardliners that it will make any compromise much more difficult to achieve?

That certainly would fit past patterns where Israel's killings appeared timed to sabotage American diplomatic engagement with Iran. It is particularly intriguing since Iran has argued that maintaining the IRGC’s listing would make killing its members legal under U.S. law.

We don't know if Israel was behind this killing. But if it was, it very well may have been done to destroy any possible compromise on the IRGC’s status between Washington and Tehran. It would also show that Biden's strategy of seeking to appease Israel has thus far failed to stop its sabotage of American diplomacy.

Family members of Colonel Sayad Khodai, a member of Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, weep over his body in his car after he was reportedly shot by two assailants in Tehran, Iran, May 22, 2022. IRGC/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Handout via REUTERS
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