27 November 2020   Leave a comment

In an earlier post, I expressed alarm over the growing indications that there were plans to attack Iranian nuclear facilities before US President Trump leaves office. Yesterday, a prominent Iranian nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was assassinated as he was driving near a suburb close to Tehran. It is not known who was responsible for the assassination, but it was the third killing of a prominent Iranian this year. But the use of assassination against Iranian nuclear scientists and efforts to derail the Iranian nuclear program are long-standing tactics by Israel and the US: “The killing comes just days before the 10-year anniversary of the killing of Iranian nuclear scientist Majid Shahriari, which Tehran also blamed on Israel. Those targeted killings came alongside the so-called Stuxnet virus, believed to be an Israeli and American creation, that destroyed Iranian centrifuges.” Further,

“In 2011, Darioush Rezaeinejad, an electrical engineer doctorate student whose work involved nuclear applications, was gunned down outside his Tehran apartment. In November 2010, a bombing in Tehran killed Majid Shahriari, was a member of the nuclear engineering faculty at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran and a member of Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. Another blast that month injured a nuclear scientist, Fereidoun Abbasi, who was later appointed head of Iran’s atomic agency.

“In 2012, motorcycle riders attached a magnetic bomb that tore apart a car carrying Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, a nuclear scientist working at Iran’s main uranium-enrichment facility in Natanz. Roshan, 32, had planned to attend a memorial for another nuclear researcher, Tehran University professor Masoud Ali Mohammadi, who was killed in a similar pinpoint blast in 2010.”

The Iranian foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, blamed Israel for the attack and it is well known that Israel had its eye on Fakhrizadeh for some time. The Times of Israel reports:

“Fakhrizadeh was named by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2018 as the director of Iran’s nuclear weapons project.

“When Netanyahu revealed then that Israel had removed from a warehouse in Tehran a vast archive of Iran’s own material detailing with its nuclear weapons program, he said: ‘Remember that name, Fakhrizadeh.’

Barak Ravid, writing for Axios, noted last Wednesday that the Israeli military was preparing for a possible military strike against Iran.

“The Israel Defense Forces have in recent weeks been instructed to prepare for the possibility that the U.S. will conduct a military strike against Iran before President Trump leaves office, senior Israeli officials tell me….

“Israeli minister of defense Benny Gantz spoke twice in the last two weeks with Christopher Miller, Trump’s acting defense secretary. They discussed Iran as well as Syria and defense cooperation.

“Last Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met in Saudi Arabia with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. One of the main issues discussed was Iran, Israeli officials say.

“Pompeo visited Israel and several Gulf countries last week to discuss Iran. State Department officials traveling with Pompeo told reporters ‘all options are on the table.’

“While Pompeo was in the Gulf, U.S. Central Command announced that B-52 strategic bombers conducted a ‘short-notice, long-range mission into the Middle East to deter aggression and reassure U.S. partners and allies.’ That was seen as another signal to Iran.

“Hossein Dehghan, an adviser to Iran’s leader and a possible candidate in Iran’s upcoming presidential elections, told AP last week that a U.S. military strike against Iran could set off a ‘full-fledged war’ in the Middle East.”

It is not clear that the assassination will have much effect on Iranian nuclear activities. The Washington Post quotes a highly regarded analyst on Fakhrizadeh’s current role:

“While Fakhrizadeh had been a key figure in Iran’s bomb program, ‘that work is all in the past, and there is no reason to expect that if Fakhrizadeh is gone it would have any effect on Iran’s current nuclear program,’ said Paul Pillar, a 28-year veteran of the CIA and a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies.”

The critical question is whether this act will provoke Iran into taking some act of retaliation which could then be used as a justification for launching an all-out attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. The issue is a difficult one to resolve. If Iran does not respond to the attack, then some in Iran will take inaction as a capitulation. That image would undoubtedly play into the hands of hardliners in Iran who might demand a very forceful retaliation. But a harsh retaliation, such as an attack on Israel or actions against US vessels in the Persian Gulf, would then be used by Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the US to justify a robust attack on Iran. Calibrating an effective response to the assassination is a very difficult act. The most likely beginning of a crisis would begin in Iraq where Iran has a number of militias active and where the US still has a number of troops stationed. The Washington Post assesses the sensitivities of both the US and Iran in Iraq:

“In calls to Kadhimi and Iraqi President Barham Salih in late September, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened to shutter the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad unless militia rocket attacks were reined in. U.S. officials say that a plan for closing the embassy remains a live possibility, and administration officials have been instructed to prepare for various scenarios.

“While U.S. officials have advised Trump against a preemptive strike on Iran, according to a senior official, they say that Trump has described the killing of an American as a red line that would prompt immediate and ‘crushing’ retaliation.”

Conflict in Iraq would exempt the homeland of both the US and Iran and thus could be more easily controlled politically.

The other crucial question is how this might affect domestic politics in both Israel and the US. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has not been able to secure a strong position in the Israeli Knesset and is currently under investigation for corruption. He has long regarded the Iranian nuclear program as the single most dangerous threat to Israeli security and firm and effective action against Iran might bolster his domestic political position. But Netanyahu (as well as Saudi Crown Prince Salman in Saudi Arabia) know that there is no likelihood of American action against Iran by the Biden Administration, so he may be thinking that he only has a month left to take action and to count on American support.

US President Trump likely considers the disarming of Iran as a way to ensure his legacy as President who followed a strong “America First” policy. He also might think that a war against Iran would enhance his chances of securing the Republican Party nomination for President in 2024, reinforcing his status among Christian Zionists who are some of his strongest supporters. An attack would also ensure that Iran would never agree to the re-establishment of the nuclear agreement which President-elect Biden says he supports. Finally, but less predictably, Trump may regard the use of war against Iran as a way of muddling the process of the Presidential transition scheduled for 20 January.

If there is an attack against Iran, President-elect Biden would find deep opposition to the attack by loyal European allies who support a return to the Iran nuclear agreement (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action–JCPOA). And both Russia and China have been forging closer ties with Iran and they would object strenuously, although not to the point of supporting Iran militarily.

Posted November 27, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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