Trump and his team deserve great credit for brokering the Abraham Accords but the landmark diplomatic developments in the Middle East recently are less about him than about his successor. The Accords, the surprise visit by Bibi Netanyahu to Saudi Arabia, and now the liquidation of Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh are all best understood as a vote of no confidence in Biden. Neither Israel nor its Sunni neighbors trusts the team that negotiated the Iran nuclear deal to be any tougher next year with Biden at the helm instead of Obama.
At last check, Iran had a stockpile of enriched uranium 12 times the limit imposed under that deal. If you’re under immediate threat from an Iranian bomb and you don’t trust Sleepy Joe to do anything about it, you have little choice but to take matters into your hands.
Today someone took matters into their own hands.
Mohsen Fakhrizadeh — who led Iran’s so-called “Amad,” or “Hope” nuclear program — was shot dead by so-called “terrorists” who first blew up another car nearby in Absard city, the Tasnim news agency said.
“Many others” were killed alongside him, potentially including relatives who were traveling with him, the agency said.
“Unfortunately, the medical team did not succeed in reviving him, and a few minutes ago, this manager and scientist achieved the high status of martyrdom after years of effort and struggle,” a statement by Iran’s armed forces carried by state media said.
Fakhrizadeh was of sufficient importance that he traveled with a security detail. It would have required a team to take him out. I wonder just how many people confronted his entourage today east of Tehran:
First images from the scene of the assassination now being shared on Iranian social media.
If true, quite clear Mr Fakhrizadeh was shot dead in his car by the attackers.
Caition: The images are unconfirmed at the moment pic.twitter.com/boVHLFW5SR
— Shayan Sardarizadeh (@Shayan86) November 27, 2020
What set Fakhrizadeh apart was his work on miniaturizing nuclear weapons so that they’d fit in a warhead on a ballistic missile. One way to stop Iran’s nuclear program is try to take out the facilities where the uranium is enriched; another is to take out the systems for delivering the payload after enriched uranium is converted into a bomb. Fakhrizadeh had been working on that for 20 years, first leading Iran’s “Project Amad” before work was suspended in 2003 and later, according to Israel, resuming that work under an Iranian agency known as SPND. Various members of that agency, including Fakhrizadeh, are under U.S. sanction. Netanyahu singled out the SNPD — and Fakhrizadeh by name — in a presentation in 2018:
Netanyahu: Head of Project Amad is Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Remember that name.
— Anna Ahronheim (@AAhronheim) April 30, 2018
Muhsain Fakhrizadeh, Iran's head of the nuclear program, was assassinated near Tehran. In 2018, Netanyahu marked his name and suggested to remember his name pic.twitter.com/T2pKRcMunM
— Gili Cohen (@gilicohen10) November 27, 2020
Iran has already accused Israel of being responsible for today’s assassination, a rare case of the regime saying something that’s probably accurate. Trump isn’t hiding his enthusiasm about the news either:
President Trump retweets Israeli journalist and author Yossi Melman, who said Mr Fakhrizadeh’s assassination is a “major psychological and professional blow” to Iran. pic.twitter.com/n4MoF8OiB1
— Shayan Sardarizadeh (@Shayan86) November 27, 2020
There have been rumblings lately that Trump and/or Israel have something bigger planned for Iran before he leaves office. Last week the Times reported that he asked his national security team for options on attacking Iran’s enrichment facilities before Biden takes office but was talked out of it. Bombing Iran risks regional war, he was told. It would also be “off-brand,” shall we say, at a moment when Trump is looking to extricate America from its involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. His nationalist fans want a lighter U.S. footprint in the Middle East, not new interventions; the last time he flirted with attacking Iran his buddy Tucker Carlson complained loudly on television about neocons leading the president into war. Hit Iran and Trump’s foreign policy legacy, with one foot out the door, will shift from removing America from aimless wars to starting a new one.
Assassinations are a lower-risk alternative, one that’s proved successful for him in the past. Iran hasn’t — yet — retaliated for the strike that killed Quds Force supremo Qassem Soleimani early this year. Trump and Netanyahu may have looked at that and reasoned that they could get away with targeting Fakhrizadeh as well, knowing that even if Iran does respond (the anniversary of Soleimani’s death is approaching and U.S. officials are reportedly anxious about it) it probably won’t be on a scale that guarantees war. Maybe taking out the Iranian nuclear brain trust is what the U.S. and Israel have settled on in lieu of bombing, especially with the Saudis and Europeans nervous about Trump starting a conflict in his final weeks as president. Netanyahu allegedly pitched the Saudi crown prince on an attack and got a cool reception, for the understandable reason that Biden can’t be counted on to intervene in a regional war with Israel and Sunni powers on one side and Iran on the other.
On the other hand, precisely because Biden can’t be counted on, that may bolster the case for Israel attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities before Trump leaves office:
The second fear is that the Saudis and Israel see the departure of Trump as a ticking clock that they need to beat.
“I’m afraid the Saudis or Israelis might see a sympathetic ear leaving the White House and a hostile one arriving and think that perhaps this will make a confrontation inevitable,” said a second NATO official. “Both countries are run by immature leaders who have been screaming about the need for war with Iran for so long it’s possible they really believe that a Biden administration will be followed by an Iranian nuclear attack.”
Axios reported two days ago that the IDF has been told to prepare for a possible U.S. attack on Iran before Trump leaves office, not because POTUS has given them any signal about it but because “senior Israeli officials anticipate ‘a very sensitive period’ ahead of Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20.” With Biden about to take office, it’s arguably in Iran’s interest not to respond to today’s assassination and hope for a more conciliatory White House on January 20. But there’s only so much Biden will be able to do for them, at least initially. He won’t want to look weak right out of the gate; even if he approaches Iran about reinstating the nuclear deal, they may demand concessions that he’s unable to make, like “compensating” them for all of the damage to their economy inflicted by Trump’s sanctions. Plus, even if Iran would ideally prefer not to respond to U.S./Israeli operations like Fakhrizadeh’s assassination, at a certain point the need to save face internationally will usurp their patience. They’ve now lost two hugely important military figures in less than a year and imposed no penalty on the people responsible. At some point they have to retaliate.
Maybe they’re planning something for January in the belief that Trump won’t want to hit back in the last days of his presidency (which is incorrect) and that Biden won’t want to hit back in the first days of his presidency. Biden will want a “reset.” But Trump, always wanting to draw a “toughness” contrast with Democrats, certainly *would* retaliate against Iran in his final weeks rather than defer to Biden. It’ll be weird to watch the “End Endless Wars!” section of his base shift to cheerleading a Trump-led attack on Iran just because Biden’s too much of a wimp to do it but that may be where we’re headed.