West Asia

Iranian nuclear physicist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh's killing points to Israel's murderous game plan

Print edition : January 01, 2021

The scene of the attack that killed Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, outside Tehran on November 27. Photo: WANA NEWS AGENCY

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Photo: WANA NEWS AGENCY

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Prime Minister. It was evident from the outset that the assassination was a hit job organised by the Israeli secret services after Netanyahu got the green signal from the Trump administration. Photo: REUTERS

The assassination of the Iranian nuclear physicist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was on the Israeli and U.S. hit list for some time, was apparently part of a strategy to sabotage the incoming Biden administration’s plans to revive the Iran nuclear deal.

The assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a high-ranking nuclear physicist who headed the Iranian Defence Ministry’s Innovation and Research wing, on November 27 on the outskirts of Tehran was done with the express purpose of provoking a new military confrontation in the region and permanently scuttling the United States-Iran nuclear deal. Initial reports said the physicist and his convoy were killed by gunmen after a remotely controlled truck bomb blew up on the road he was travelling on. According to most reports appearing immediately after the event, the Israeli secret service Mossad used the services of the Iranian terrorist group Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MeK) in the operation. The MeK has a history of staging terror attacks inside Iran at the behest of foreign powers.

Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister, said the assassination bore “all the hallmarks” of previous atrocities committed by Israel. The killing has been condemned worldwide, and the European Union (E.U.), Russia and Turkey have issued strong statements. John Brennan, the former head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), has characterised the assassination as “criminal and highly reckless”, risking “lethal retaliation and a new round of regional conflict”. There was no condemnation of Israel from either the U.S. President-elect Joe Biden or those he has named in top posts.

Also read: Tension over the ‘peace deal’ between Israel and the UAE

Sixty-two-year-old Fakhrizadeh, who had the rank of a brigadier general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, played an important role in Iran’s nuclear programme. Addressing the United Nations General Assembly two years ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on the basis of fabricated evidence, had dramatically portrayed Fakhrizadeh as the architect of Iran’s alleged pursuit of a nuclear weapon programme. Iran had strongly denied the charge made by the Israeli leader, who has gained notoriety both domestically and internationally for spreading falsehood and hate.

Killing spree

Israel has been on a killing spree in the region, with special focus on Iran and its allies. Iranian scientists working in the country’s nuclear sector have been specifically targeted. From 2010 to 2012, four Iranian nuclear scientists, Massoud Alimohammadi, Majid Shahriari, Dariush Rezanijedad and Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, were killed in terror attacks inside Iran. Iranian scientists were routinely kidnapped or illegally detained while travelling abroad.

A senior materials scientist, Sirous Asgari, who happened to teach in the same university as Fakhrizadeh but has no connection with Iran’s nuclear programme was lured into the U.S. two years ago by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and arrested on trumped-up charges. Asgari’s only crime was that he refused to become an informant for the U.S. He could leave prison only a few months ago after the Iranian and U.S. governments agreed to a prisoner swap.

Before the terror attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists started in earnest, Iran’s nuclear research station in Natanz was targeted by Israel and the U.S. by the “Stuxnet” virus attack so as to disable the centrifuges there. There were mysterious explosions in other Iranian nuclear sites this year. The Donald Trump administration organised many sabotage operations against Iranian nuclear sites in cooperation with Israel in the past two years.

Also read: U.S. & Iran: Wages of aggression

Fakhrizadeh has been on the Israeli and U.S. hit list for some time. It was evident from the outset that his assassination was a hit job organised by the Israeli secret services after Netanyahu got the green signal from the Trump administration. The assassination also came in the wake of the so-called “secret visit” to Saudi Arabia by Netanyahu to meet with the kingdom’s de facto ruler, the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. According to reports in the Israeli and U.S. media, the main agenda for discussion was the so-called threat posed by Iran to the region. Zarif said the Iranian scientist’s assassination was connected with the recent trip of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Netanyahu to Saudi Arabia for tripartite talks.

The U.S. media had reported that after his failure to win re-election, Trump was seriously thinking about launching military strikes against the Iranian nuclear site at Natanz. Netanyahu has been trying to persuade successive U.S. administrations to launch a war against Iran on his country’s behalf. In fact, just before Fakhrizadeh’s assassination, Netanyahu had warned senior Israeli military officials to be prepared for the possibility of a U.S. military strike on Iran. The Israeli government is still hoping that Trump will do them a final favour before leaving office.

Trump has already done Netanyahu many huge favours, including ordering the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s top general, earlier in the year. (“Suicidal assassination of Qassem Soleimani”, Frontline, January 31, 2020.) The killing was apparently carried out by the U.S. military in coordination with the Israeli military intelligence. The U.S. President has recognised Israeli settlements in the West Bank and shifted the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. The status of Jerusalem is disputed and is not recognised by the international community as the capital of the Jewish state. President Trump has not commented on the killing of the scientist so far but has re-tweeted a comment by a right-wing Israeli journalist which said that the assassination “was a major psychological and professional blow for Iran”.

Fakhrizadeh’s assassination was planned to sabotage the stated goal of the incoming administration of Joseph Biden to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran nuclear deal. The Trump administration had reneged on the agreement two years ago. Jamal Abdi, president of the National Iranian American Council, said the aim of the Trump administration and the Israeli government to sabotage Iran’s avowedly peaceful nuclear programme had “now morphed into Trump and Netanyahu sabotaging the next U.S. President”. He said they “are trying to goad Iran into provocations and accelerating its nuclear work” and in the process prevent the incoming administration from renewing the dialogue process with Iran.

‘Biden, the real target’

Trita Parsi, a well-known expert on Iran and vice president of the Quincy Institute, a Washington-based think tank, said Fakhrizadeh’s assassination created a “win-win situation” for Netanyahu. He said if Iran responded, Netanyahu could drag the U.S. into another war in the region and if Iran showed restraint, it would complicate the negotiation process that the Biden administration proposed to restart with Tehran. Netanyahu, according to Parsi, has been able to “undermine the position” of Biden. “In some ways, Biden is the real target” of the assassination, Parsi said. The only way to revive the nuclear deal, according to Parsi, is for the Biden administration to start talks with Iran quickly without any preconditions and lift sanctions.

The Obama administration had warned that Israel’s assassination policy would only strengthen the Iranian side’s resolve on the negotiating table. If Biden is not able to rein in the Israeli killing machine, Iran will be forced to reconsider its military and diplomatic options. After the recent talk of Trump planning to order a military strike against Iran, Tehran let it be known that cities like Dubai will be in their firing line if hostilities begin.

A spokesman for the Iranian government stressed that the country’s scientific and defence policies will not change because of the assassination of a leading scientist or general. He said that Iran would respond to the assassination but the “response won’t come at a time or place they expect”. This year Iran has lost its most revered general and its most respected scientist. The Iranians, if recent history is any guide, will exact revenge on those responsible for the killing of their leaders, at an appropriate juncture.

Also read: Looming war clouds in Iran

In response to the Trump administration’s reinstatement of the draconian sanctions, the Iranians also decided to step back from their commitments regarding the cap on uranium enrichment, citing its right under Article 26 and 36 of the deal. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has reported that Iran now has ten times the amount of enriched uranium that is allowed under the nuclear agreement after the Trump administration unilaterally walked out of the nuclear deal in 2018.

Following Fakhrizadeh’s assassination, the Iranian Parliament overwhelmingly approved a draft resolution on “strategic measures to combat sanctions”. The proposed measures included “enrichment of uranium up to 20 per cent”. Despite Iran’s recent moves, the IAEA has emphasised that there is no evidence so far that the country is planning to weaponise its nuclear programme. Iran is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) while Israel is the only country in the region which has nuclear weapons. In fact, the Jewish state, according to the Centre for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, has an arsenal of 90 plutonium-based nuclear warheads.

The other signatories of the JCPOA were either unwilling or unable to provide relief for the Iranian people from the impact of the sanctions the Trump administration had imposed. Iran oil exports were drastically impacted along with its ability to access the international banking system. Washington had even blocked Tehran’s request for an emergency $5 billion loan to combat the pandemic. Iran is among the worst-affected countries with 50,000 people reported dead.

Abdolnasser Hemmati, the head of Iran’s Central Bank, said in early December that the U.S. was preventing Iran from buying the corona vaccine through the World Health Organisation’s COVAX programme. “So far, any methods to make payments and transfer the required currency have faced obstacles due to the inhumane sanctions of the U.S. government and the need to obtain permission from the Office of Foreign Assets Control [AFACS],” Hemmati said. AFACS comes under the U.S. Treasury Department.

The Iranian government has indicated that it will roll back its enrichment programme if the Biden administration restores the JCPOA fully and reverse the “maximum pressure” policy against the country. Biden and his team have suggested that Iran has to return to full compliance first and commit to new negotiations for the nuclear agreement to be completely restored.

Also read: Deceptive calm in West Asia

Fakhrizadeh’s assassination has only strengthened Iran’s resolve to not succumb to pressure from Washington and its allies on the new preconditions being put forward for reversing the maximum pressure policy. On the campaign trail Biden had repeatedly stated that he intended to revive the nuclear deal. As Vice President under Barack Obama, he had played an important role in the signing of the JCPOA in 2015. At the same time, Biden has always been close to the influential Zionist lobby in the U.S.

‘Strategic patience’

In the wake of the Fakhrizadeh assassination, Iran’s leadership has decided to adopt a policy of “strategic patience”. Such a policy will give it enough time to wait for Biden to take over the presidency and formulate the new administration’s Iran policy. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, described Fakhrizadeh as the country’s “distinguished and prominent nuclear and defensive scientist”. Without elaborating, he said the country’s immediate priority was to ensure “the definitive punishment of the perpetrators and those who ordered it”. President Hassan Rouhani said the cowardly assassination would not in any way hamper the country’s peaceful nuclear programme. “We would respond to the assassination of the martyr Fakhrizadeh at the proper time,” he said.

In a letter to the U.N. Security Council, the Iranian government conveyed that “there were serious indicators” of Israeli culpability in the killing and that Tehran “reserved the right to take all necessary measures to defend its own people”. Many Iranians are, however, questioning the failure of the authorities to prevent recurring assassinations of scientists and top officials by terrorist groups on home soil.

Fakhrizadeh was among the most protected individuals in the country as he was known to be on the top of the U.S.-Israel hit list. In a statement issued in the first week of December, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps said its investigations have concluded that the scientist had been killed by a weapon remotely controlled from a satellite..

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