The murder of a leading Iranian nuclear scientist has once again shaken the precarious balance in Iran and in the broader Middle East, a region long plagued by unclaimed high-profile acts of violence, pointing the finger at Israel as the most likely culprit in an event that has put all key actors, both on the ground and in remote areas, on high alert.
Detailed information on the murder of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh remains obscure, as is typically the case with targeted attacks in the region. By all accounts, the former officer of the Revolutionary Guard, widely considered the godfather of the Iranian Ministry of Defense’s nuclear program, was shot dead in the streets of Absard, east of Tehran, in a brazen attack in the heart of the Islamic Republic.
The assassination was quickly claimed by Iranian officials, including the Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, that the country’s main enemy, Israel, was behind the murder. Experts such as Douglas Wise, a former deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and retired career officer of the Central Intelligence Agency, considered this a likely scenario.
“I think when you look at who has the motivation, who is the beneficiary and who has the skills, it’s pretty obvious that it was Israel,” Wise told Washington Newsday. “And I’m not ruling out helpful allies either.”
The question remains as to why – Why Fakhrizadeh? And why now?
A key component of Israel’s national security policy – as well as that of the United States towards its top ally in the Middle East – is the maintenance of a qualitative military advantage, or QME, over potential adversaries in a hostile region. This policy applies not only to Iran, but also to Arab nations that historically boycotted Israel or even fought with it in support of the Palestinians, but are now increasingly doing business with the country.
When it comes to the confrontation with Iran, Wise said that Israel’s first and only option is military force.
“If you look at the algorithms that nation states use, it is diplomacy, intelligence, military and economics,” Wise said. “If you look at what Israel applies to Iran – diplomacy, probably not intelligence. It is an enabler, but it is not the solution. Economically – they do not trade with Iran, Iran is already undergoing massive sanctions, and their [nuclear]program seems to be alive and well.
From the so-called DIME menu he said that Israel has only the “M part, which is the military part, so that the State of Israel will have not only a qualitative, but also a significant, if not existential, advantage over its potential adversaries”.
But exactly what effect Fakhrizadeh’s death had remains unclear.
“Although Fakhrizadeh played an important role in the past, he is hardly essential to Iran’s nuclear work and is less relevant to Iran’s current enrichment efforts, advanced centrifuges, etc.,” Barabara Slavin, director of the Initiative on the Future of Iran at the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council, told Washington Newsday.
She said that Iran has always officially denied the search for nuclear weapons and that its stockpiles are still under review by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Israel, on the other hand, is widely known to possess such weapons and does not allow international inspections.
“Israel has an unknown number of actual nuclear weapons and Iran has none,” Slavin said.
Israel routinely neither confirms nor denies that it has a nuclear arsenal. International groups such as the Federation of American Scientists estimate its stockpile at around 90 weapons. U.S. officials also routinely refuse to speak openly about Israel’s alleged nuclear weapons, but have historically been quick to respond to ensure that Israel maintains its qualitative military advantage.
“For over forty years and across seven presidential administrations, America has demonstrated and will continue to demonstrate its unwavering commitment to Israel’s security,” a State Department spokesman told Washington Newsday. “Under our 10-year Memorandum of Understanding, Israel is the world’s largest recipient of U.S. security assistance, and our governments work closely together in joint military exercises, military research and weapons development.
The spokesman stressed that this principle is so inherent in Washington’s foreign policy that it is coded in U.S. law.
“We have a legal obligation to account for potential arms sales to the region through Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME),” said the spokesman, “and the U.S. government remains committed to helping Israel maintain its QME.
The State Department declined to comment directly on Fakhrizadeh’s killing and the potential perpetrators.
In line with a policy of strategic ambiguity, the Israeli defense forces told Washington Newsday that their personnel “as always remain vigilant, prepared for various Iranian attacks and ready to defend Israeli civilians” and refused to speak further on the subject of Fakhrizadeh’s death.
Similarly, Israel remains silent on allegations that it was also involved in a series of attacks against other prominent Iranian nuclear scientists that began a decade ago, or in the Stuxnet computer virus that disabled Iranian centrifuges and was uncovered at about the same time.
However, Israel has openly admitted to having staged daring attacks that destroyed nuclear reactors in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007. The latter operation was carried out only a few years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq under the premise of stopping an allegedly active weapons of mass destruction program that was never uncovered.
However, Israel was not the only potential perpetrator that Shamkhani named for the murder of Fakhrizadeh. The senior Iranian official also raised the possibility that an outlawed dissident group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI) or Mujahedin e-Khalq (MeK), may also have played a role in the deadly operation.
The group was once a U.S.-designated terrorist organization before it was removed from the list in 2012 with the support of lobbying by two future Trump administration officials: John Bolton, former White House national security adviser, and Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer.
Paris-based PMOI/Mek spokesperson Shahin Gobadi accused Shamkhani of “directing anger, resentment and lies” against his group. Gobadi linked Shamkhani’s accusations to the ongoing trial of Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi for alleged involvement in a suspected bomb attack against MeK officials in Villepinte, France, in 2018.
“Accusing the mojahedin of killing the regime’s nuclear experts is nothing new,” Gobadi said, “and is a reaction to the revelation of the entire nuclear structure and nuclear program of the mullahs and those involved in the Iranian resistance.
MeK has earned the merit of having uncovered Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program as early as 1991 and of having uncovered key installations in Natanz and Arak in 2002 that were part of a leak presumably involving Israeli and U.S. intelligence agencies. Gobadi told Washington Newsday that two years later his group “identified Mohsen Fakhrizadeh as the official responsible for the regime’s bomb-making machinery.
“The Iranian resistance saved the world and the Iranian people from the danger of the mullahs’ rapid access to an atomic bomb,” Ghobadi said, “and blocked their way in this area, which, as the regime leaders emphasize, is the guarantee for maintaining the rule of the medieval theocracy.
The extent to which Israel and the MeK could cooperate was the subject of debate, although neither side recognizes any official ties. Slavin spoke of probable links between the two in previous operations against Iran, but warned against attributing too much influence to the overseas-based opposition group.
“In the past, the Mossad has used MeK agents in Iran to carry out attacks,” Slavin told Washington Newsday. “I don’t know if that was the case this time, or if Israel has managed to infiltrate Farsi-speaking Israelis or others to carry out operations. In general, I think that the relevance of the MeK was exaggerated”.
Regardless of who actually pulled the trigger that ended Fakhrizadeh’s life, the spotlight has serious implications for Israel when Iranian officials react.
The Iranian parliament has already voted in favor of uranium enrichment, which goes further beyond the limits set in the 2015 nuclear deal. This was a pioneering deal, but was later abandoned by the US after President Donald Trump took office. The enrichment vote was later rejected by the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who carefully ensured that all steps averted from the nuclear deal could be reversed if President-elect Joe Biden returned to it.
Two former deputy chief coordinators of the State Department for the implementation of Iran’s nuclear program, Jarrett Blanc, senior fellow in the geoeconomic and strategic program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Richard Johnson, senior director for Fuel Cycle and Verification of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, recently told Washington Newsday that while Iran is concerned, it has not taken any measures that would preclude a return to the deal if the U.S. agrees.
The Iranian mission spokesman to UN spokesperson Alireza Miryousefi confirmed that his country’s actions were a direct response to the violations of other parties, such as the imposition of devastating U.S. sanctions on the Iranian economy and Europe’s failure to normalize trade relations in response.
“Iran makes decisions about its nuclear program based on national interests,” Miryousefi told Washington Newsday. “As you know, the steps taken since the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA are gradual and remain in force as long as other parties violate the agreement and/or fail to meet their obligations.
But he said that further retaliatory measures are imminent.
“Retaliation for the assassination of Dr. Fakhrizadeh will be carried out in due course and at a place and time of our choosing against the perpetrators of the terrorist attack,” Miryousefi said.
Asked about Iran’s national security in the face of Israel’s extensive efforts to maintain a qualitative military advantage in the region, the Iranian diplomat said that the assassination of Fakhrizadeh does not indicate any weaknesses in the Islamic Republic.
“As far as guaranteeing our defense, Iran is perfectly capable of defending its people and its territory,” Miryousefi said. “A recent terrorist action, which can and does happen in any country, does not diminish Iran’s vigilance in disrupting conspiracies that it has carried out dozens of times in the last 41 years.
Tehran has also participated in expeditionary operations throughout the region and beyond, trying to distance itself from events that often suggest the suspicion of the country’s involvement. These include rocket attacks on U.S. and Israeli forces and the complex rocket and drone attack on Saudi oil fields last year – all actions in which Iran denies any involvement.
A startling break in this narrative was the Iranian missile attack by U.S. forces in Iraq, which followed the open killing of Major General Qassem Soleimani by the U.S. at Baghdad International Airport in January. The thunderous display of the largest and most advanced missile arsenal in the Middle East was accompanied by the Iranian motto “harsh revenge”, which was repeated now that Fakhrizadeh had died.
Since both Israel and Iran were operating in the shadows, experts could only speculate on how far each of the two countries would go to defend their interests. But Hagar Hajjar Chemali, a senior colleague of the Atlantic Council, said that Israel was prepared to do almost anything to ensure that its qualitative military advantage was maintained, even in the face of the now friendly nations in the neighborhood.
“For numerous reasons, Israel has always tried to maintain its qualitative military advantage,” Chemali told Washington Newsday, “and I expect it will continue to do so regardless of the number of normalization and peace agreements signed with other states in the region.
One of the most widely touted achievements of the Trump administration’s deeply pro-Israeli legacy – which includes the country’s recognition of the annexation of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, which are recognized under international law as Palestinian and Syrian respectively – has been the monitoring of agreements in which the Arab states of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan normalized their relations with a country they had formally boycotted for decades.
For the first time, Israelis can now travel openly to countries just a few kilometers beyond the Persian Gulf from Iran. But not even these historic agreements have allowed friendly Arab states to obtain equipment that even appears to threaten Israel’s qualitative military superiority.
Since a proposed sale of F-35s to the United Arab Emirates is still pending, U.S. lawmakers such as Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, believe it remains to be seen how such an agreement could affect Israel’s attitude toward other countries in the Middle East.
Even at first glance, he argued that such an agreement would “undoubtedly” “reduce Israel’s military advantage in the region.
Murphy reiterated the importance of Israel maintaining its competitive advantage over the rest of the region, including Iran, and emphasized the distrust of its neighbors. He added an explicit reference to the sale of the UAE.
“We should also be aware that the weapons we sell to the region do not often remain in the hands of the original buyer,” Murphy said.
In a statement released Thursday by the UAE Embassy in Washington, Emirati Ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba said: “There has never been a report of U.S. technology being diverted from the UAE to an adversary.
In any case, neither Israel nor the UAE are eager for Biden to fulfill his commitment to return to Iran business, the Joint Comprehensive Action Plan (JCPOA), while regional tensions are increasing. Given the qualitative military edge at the top of Israel’s strategic outlook, Chemali said that this concept was far more likely to have contributed to Fakhrizadeh’s death than any attempt to sabotage the JCPOA.
“The assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, assuming that it was carried out by Israel, would also support this reason,” she said, “which is why I do not believe the driving factor was to prevent diplomacy between the Biden government and Iran, but to get it done before the Biden government comes into play.
Since it was unlikely that the Trump government would admonish Israel, she said that the timing might have been just right.
“It could also be that the opportunity simply came at that time,” Chemali said. “Israel probably felt that the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh now allowed it to take a step that it believes will help it maintain its qualitative military edge while avoiding complicating U.S.-Israeli relations under a Biden government.
Iran’s next steps in a deadly game that is taking place throughout the region could be determined by the Biden administration’s own decisions as it prepares to take over U.S. foreign policy after a series of serious escalations.
“Much will depend on whether the US returns to the JCPOA as Joe Biden has promised,” Slavin told Washington Newsday. “Perhaps Iran does not want to jeopardize the lifting of sanctions by retaliating on a large scale for the assassination of Fakhrizadeh.
She offered travel advice.
“But if I were an Israeli businessman or tourist,” Slavin said, “I could avoid Dubai for the time being.
Ramsey Touchberry contributed to this story from Washington, DC.