The killing of Iran’s top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh threatens to further exacerbate tensions in the Middle East as only a few weeks of President Donald Trump’s term of office remain.
Mr. Fakhrizadeh – who is considered the father of Iran’s nuclear project and whose name was verified years ago by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – was killed last week on a county road east of Tehran by a team of unidentified assassins, despite being under close protection of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Israeli officials have refused to confirm or deny the involvement because of its long-standing policy, but several reports have quoted American intelligence officials attributing the operation to the Israelis.
The assassination marks a serious escalation in American-Israeli efforts to undermine the Iranian nuclear project, which is increasingly unchecked as the JCPOA (from which Trump withdrew in 2018 with Israeli support) remains stuck in the doldrums.
The US has so far refused to comment or clarify whether the Trump administration knew about the attack or approved it. Iran has sworn revenge on all those responsible.
The U.S. embassy in Baghdad – which is regularly targeted by Iranian-backed Iraqi-Shiite militias – is now temporarily withdrawing some staff due to security concerns, the Washington Post reported on Wednesday, citing an unnamed source familiar with the withdrawal. CNN later confirmed the report, citing three anonymous sources familiar with the matter.
The Post said it was still unclear how many employees would be withdrawn. Their source described the move as “de-risking”. A diplomatic source told CNN that the withdrawal will be “minor” and noted that the State Department is allowing more staff than usual to take leave.
The withdrawal will continue until after the third anniversary of the assassination of Iranian Commander-in-Chief Major General Qassem Soleimani by the U.S. on January 3, which brought Washington, D.C. and Tehran to the brink of war earlier this year.
Iran eventually fired ballistic missiles at Iraqi military bases with American troops, injuring more than 100 people. But an unnamed defense official told CNN that the U.S. still expects further retaliation. “They will not give up,” the source said.
The State Department refused to confirm or deny reports of a Baghdad withdrawal, a spokesman said: “We do not comment on the details of any adjustments, but we remain committed to a strong diplomatic partnership with Iraq.
“Ambassador [Matthew] Tueller remains in Iraq and the embassy in Baghdad continues to work,” the spokesman added.
“The German Foreign Office is continuously adapting its diplomatic presence in embassies and consulates around the world to its mission, the local security environment, the health situation and even the holidays… Ensuring the safety of U.S. government personnel, U.S. citizens and the security of our facilities remains our highest priority.
Iran has blamed Israel for the assassination of Fakhrizadeh with the protection and approval of the U.S. This goes back to the years before the nuclear deal in the Joint Comprehensive Action Plan, in which several Iranian nuclear scientists were killed by assassination squads, allegedly with Israeli and American involvement.
Iranian intelligence now says it has identified the individuals involved in the operation, but has not made them public and has not been able to apprehend any of the attacks or their accomplices at the scene or afterwards. According to the New York Times, this latest high-profile security breach has triggered a blame game within the regime.
The US presence in Baghdad has long been a target for Iran and its agents. During the American occupation of the country after the 2003 invasion, hundreds of American soldiers were killed by insurgents using weapons supplied by Iran.
In recent years, the embassy in Baghdad and the surrounding “Green Zone” have been regularly hit by rockets and other ammunition fired by Tehran-backed militia groups. Convoys with American military equipment were also targets of IED attacks.
The Iranian regime exerts enormous influence in neighboring Iraq, facilitated by the catastrophic American invasion and occupation of the country. Iran has increased its influence through its militias-which dominate the powerful coalition of the armed groups of the People’s Mobilization Forces- during Iraq’s struggle against the so-called Islamic state in the north of the country.
Observers have noted that U.S. influence in Iraq continued to decline during the term of President Donald Trump, a development that some say was further strengthened by the assassination of Soleimani, which prompted some Iraqi legislators to call for the complete withdrawal of the U.S. from the country.
The Foreign Office has warned against closing the embassy in Baghdad completely if the Iraqi government cannot guarantee its security.
Last year the facility was overrun and looted by Iraqi demonstrators supported by Iranian-backed militia fighters. The incident was one of the reasons given by administrative officials for the murder of Soleimani weeks later while the commander was in Baghdad. PMU leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was among those murdered alongside Soleimani.
Iraqi President Barham Salih, meanwhile, condemned last week’s assassination and said the government refused to take any steps that could disrupt the security and stability of the region, Iranian state media reported.