Assassination of Iranian Scientist – Did It Serve the Purpose, if Any?

Occupying the White House as a lame-duck President can be a stultifying ordeal. Even more so, when your bid for a second term in office was rebuffed by voters and you end up being one of few Presidents in history to ignominiously leave office after having served only one term. Even a statesman with gravitas, of a Wilsonian mould, would be chastened and chagrined by such a disappointing outcome. But he would try to quickly come to grips with reality and would make efforts to excuse himself gracefully. However, a modicum of statesmanship is too much to expect from a man-child like Donald Trump. Having spent four erratic years in office working flat out to upend long-standing international norms that undergirded the America-led liberal world order, indulging his solipsistic fancies and peremptorily demanding obedience from allies and enemies alike, Trump simply can’t come to terms with the knockback he received at the polls. Seething with spite and brooding in malice, Trump took out his rage on Iran.

A prominent Iranian nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was assassinated last week plausibly by the Israeli spy agency Mossad ostensibly with the blessing of the United States. Inquiring into the whys and wherefores of the attack, one finds that reasons of spite played a greater role in spurring it than did considerations of strategy. If the motive was to finish off the mastermind of the Iranian nuclear arms-building process and thereby scupper the Islamic Republic’s dreams of building a nuclear weapon, the murder of Fakhrizadeh clearly did not achieve that end. As a profusion of punditry in the press following the assassination makes plain, Fakhrizadeh was a crucial, but not an indispensable component of Iran’s nuclear plans. Indeed, as former official of the National Security Council Bruce Riedel told the New Yorker, “The Iranians mastered that technology twenty years ago. This guy was important, no question, but he was not crucial to it. Nobody is crucial to it anymore. That’s why describing this as a devastating blow is nonsense.”

If inflicting a major damage to the progress of building nuclear weapons wasn’t the aim, then what was? Some observers suggest that the attack is the result of the desire of Israel and the Gulf Monarchies to jeopardize a return to some version of the Iran Nuclear Deal by the President-elect Joe Biden, from which Trump unilaterally pulled out in 2018. Biden’s avowed policy to renegotiate the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the nuclear deal is officially known) and lift the debilitating economic sanctions that Trump foisted on Tehran has put Iran-haters in the Middle East ill at ease. So, it is speculated, a high-profile attack on its own soil might provoke Iran to retaliate in equal proportion which would cause the incoming Biden administration to adopt a tough stance towards the Islamic Republic and complicate a peaceable return to the Nuclear Deal. Worse still, it is hoped that a strong Iranian reprisal would give greater grounds for America and Israel to deliver a devastating blow to Tehran’s nuclear facilities.

In any case, the key question to ask in this juncture is; why now? If sabotaging Iran’s nuclear facilities wasn’t the plan, why would America approve a strike against Tehran unprovoked? Granted, Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu wants to scupper Joe Biden’s overtures to Tehran. But why would a US administration on its way out of office do a favour to a foreign country (however close its ties may be) risking a serious escalation of tensions and possibly even military confrontation? To answer this question, it may be useful to take a relook at the Trump administration’s bellicosity that characterized much of its engagement towards Iran.

Trump pulled out of the JCPOA in 2018 with the sole goal to reverse his predecessor’s policy of negotiation with Tehran. He surrounded himself with advisers like former National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who were well-known Iran hawks in Washington. Then Trump followed a ‘maximum pressure’ campaign that imposed excruciating sanctions on Iran, strangling its economy and prodding discontent amongst Iranian citizens. Initially, Tehran responded by urging the E3, the other signatories of the JCPOA – UK, France and Germany- to bring America to its heel and convince Trump to get back to the deal. When these efforts bore little fruit, Iran started to incrementally breach the terms of the Nuclear Deal and began enriching uranium in its nuclear facility. But that transgression came after sedulous attempts at diplomacy by Javad Zarif, Iran’s tenacious foreign minister and his team. But Trump turned a deaf ear to Iran’s and the E3’s entreaties to rejoin the agreement and instead stepped up his campaign of ‘maximum pressure’. As though those moves weren’t reckless enough, Trump, earlier this year, gratuitously ordered the assasination of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the elite Quds Forces of the paramilitary group Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). A revered panjandrum in the Iranian imagination, the assassination provoked widespread indignation against the ‘Great Satan’. But Iran’s reprisals were careful and measured.

Throughout his term in office, Trump has adopted a warlike posture towards Iran, attacked it several times for no good reason even as he constantly showered benefits on Israel. This helps answer the question I posed earlier; why did America give the go-ahead to an attack on Iran that advanced Israel’s interests than its own? The answer lies in the pathological hatred that Trump harbours against the country. No person in his right mind, let alone the occupant of the highest political office in the world, would risk a military confrontation while he is on his way out of office in order to favour a foreign country. This is also typical of the larger theme that characterized Trump’s foreign policy; personal biases over strategic consideration and self-interest over national interest.

Iran has two options on its table. One, it can choose to retaliate. But it might play into the hands of Israel and America who are looking to ramp up hostilities to breaking point before Joe Biden assumes office on January 20. Two, it can wait out the rest of Trump’s term in office rather than giving him what he wants; an escalation of tensions culminating in a bloody scrimmage. I believe it is wise for Iran to follow the second option. The Islamic Republic, by dint of its willingness to negotiate despite Trump’s relentless onslaught, has made America look like the aggressor in this fight, which is true to an extent. It has demonstrated remarkable forbearance in the face of repeated assaults on its military and economy. It may not risk losing this high ground by hastily resorting to a retaliation which might also complicate a return to the JCPOA as its nemeses intended. It should take cues from its distant past of adhering to international norms whilst also simultaneously asserting its rightful claims in the international arena. As Stephen Kinzer showed in his scintillating book All The Shah’s Men, the British government imposed punishing sanctions on the export of Iranian oil in the 1950s and intimidated the third-world country by sending its navy to the Persian Gulf. Then Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh (who was later overthrown in a CIA-orchestrated coup) responded to British aggression by demonstrating the moral righteousness of the Iranian right to its natural resources to the international community. While hoping for a resolute and charismatic leader like Mossadegh in present-day Iran would be a sort of pipe dream, Tehran would do well to follow his example at this stage. At the same time, if the United States or Israel continue to provoke Iran gratuitously, the Islamic regime may retaliate at some point. Already the economic sanctions and the high-profiles assassinations have harmed the collective Iranian amour propre, damaging the regime’s legitimacy. Continued provocations would push the mullahs to expedite the attainment of the ultimate deterrent, the nuclear arms, which may not be in the best interest of global security.

-Prasanna Aditya (Freelancer)

Picture Credits: Reuters /

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