Iranian forces carrying the coffin of slain top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh during his funeral ceremony in Iran's capital Tehran, November 29, 2020. Photo: Iranian Defense Ministry

The November 27 assassination of top Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh has been widely praised in Israeli media while at least one Israeli official told the New York Times the world should be thankful the “father” of Iran’s nuclear weapons program has been taken out.

Fakhrizadeh’s assassination notably coincided with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Persian Gulf tour, suggesting a concerted effort to both escalate tensions with Iran and more overtly insert Israel into the security calculus of Iran’s regional rivals, namely Saudi Arabia and the UAE. 

The killing appears also to have been calculated to elicit an Iranian military response that could easily spiral and drag Israel’s staunch ally the United States into a direct confrontation with Iran in the waning days of Donald Trump’s lame-duck administration.

The fact that President Trump reacted to the news of Fakhrizadeh’s assassination by retweeting an Israeli journalist’s pro-Netanyahu spin on the killing indicates at least a modicum of US support if not complicity, the full details of which may never be revealed. 

What is clear is that President Trump and his outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have initiated new actions against Iran since the November election Trump lost to President-elect Joe Biden, who significantly has hinted at a more conciliatory approach toward Teheran, including a resumption of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) Trump scrapped.

In recent weeks, Trump’s administration has imposed new sanctions, dispatched strategic B-52 bombers to the region as a “warning” to Iran, and even considered a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, according to various media reports.

In sum, Trump’s 11th-hour campaign is a last-ditch effort to maximize the punishing pressure his administration has applied on Iran, including through crippling economic sanctions, and stoke a new security crisis for Biden’s inheritance.  

Demonstrators protest against the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in front of an entrance of a Foreign Ministry building in southern Tehran, November 28, 2020. Photo: AFP/Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency

Israel’s incendiary approach toward Iran has a high probability of backfiring with potentially dire consequences. Any short-term gain achieved by the assassination, such as exposing Iran’s internal security vulnerabilities, will likely turn into a long-term loss for several reasons.

First, the assassination has been criticized by the European Union, the United Nations and even among prominent voices in the US. The European Union issued a statement strongly condemning the assassination.

John Brennan, ex-chief of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), referred to the assassination as a “crime.” United Nations officials have also said the killing was “illegal” and a “crime” against a government official.  

Second, Israeli officials and media pundits are ignoring the fact that the assassination perpetuates the image of Israel using illegitimate means to achieve its foreign policy objectives, thus harming its own legitimacy and credibility in the international arena.

Third, with respect to Saudi Arabia and UAE, both of which have recently improved ties with Israel, the assassination has the potential to destabilize the entire Gulf region to the detriment of their national interests, thus potentially warranting self-distancing for Israel just as they had come together.  

Fourth, although US President-elect Biden has not publicly commented on the killing as of this writing, comments by former Barack Obama era officials such as Brennan reflect poorly on Israel, which insists that Biden’s plan to return the US to the Iran nuclear agreement is wrong-headed. 

Biden cannot be pleased by Israel’s preemptive actions that are clearly meant to tie his diplomatic hands with Iran and force him to reconsider his publicly stated positions. Indeed, Israel may have alienated Biden and his foreign policy team in the weeks ahead of their taking government.

Fifth, if Israel’s principal intention of killing Fakhrizadeh was to cause a setback in Iran’s nuclear program, then the opposite is likely to happen.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has already issued strict orders that the scientific and research projects pursued by Fakhrizadeh should continue undeterred in the wake of what many Iranians view as a “terror attack.” 

There is now a growing call in the Iranian Parliament to end Iran’s voluntary adoption of the IAEA’s intrusive Additional Protocol as well as its inspection regime, with some parliamentary members pointing out that Fakhrizadeh’s name was revealed to the Israelis years ago when they got their hands on an IAEA list of Iran’s scientists, five of whom have since been assassinated. Another survived an assassination attempt.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech on Iran’s nuclear program in Tel Aviv with a slide behind him picturing Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, April 30, 2018. Photo: AFP/Nir Kafri

The latest IAEA report on Iran, issued in November, once again confirmed Iran’s full compliance with the extensive transparency measures stipulated in both the Iran nuclear accord and UN Security Council Resolution 2231, citing Iran’s compliance with the agency’s request to inspect two additional sites previously unreported. 

Like the previous reports, the IAEA has confirmed the absence of any evidence of diversion of nuclear material for weapons purposes.

The killing has also moved the moderate President Hassan Rouhani to adopt a more hard-line position in sync with the nation’s mood of anger and outrage seeking revenge. 

More broadly, the killing may have opened a new chapter in regional tensions, particularly if Iran delivers on its promise to exact revenge and launch a strike on Israel, as openly called for by the conservative daily Kayhan. 

It cannot be ruled out that an Iran-Israel war could be imminent and quickly drag in other countries, in which case Iran may even resort to such measures as blocking the Strait of Hormuz and using its proxies such as the Houthis in Yemen to target Saudi and UAE oil installations.

There is now a debate inside Iran over what would be a proper and proportionate response to the assassination on its soil. As Iran mulls its options, its interests will likely be best served by pursuing legal and political options, including through the International Criminal Court and UN Security Council.

Yet Tehran can almost certainly be expected to intensify its nuclear program with reduced cooperation with the IAEA and could through any number of retaliatory scenarios set the region alight in a new era of regional conflict.