Why the assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist was more of an attack on Joe Biden than Iran.
In 2015, Iran agreed a long-term deal on its nuclear programme with a group of world powers known as the P5+1 (US, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany). Under the agreement, Iran agreed to limit its sensitive nuclear activities and allow in international inspectors in return for the lifting of economic sanctions. The accord covered uranium enrichment, the handling of plutonium and the prevention of the secret development of nuclear weapons, all in return for the lifting of economic sanctions that had cost the country more than $160bn (£118bn) in oil revenue from 2012 to 2016 alone (1). The deal would also allow Iran to regain access to the more than $100bn in assets frozen overseas and would be able to resume selling oil on international markets and using the global financial system for trade (1).
However, in May 2018, US President Donald Trump abandoned the landmark deal and in November that year, he reinstated sanctions.
With Trump set to leave office on 20th January 2021, to be succeeded by President-elect Joe Biden, the consensus is that a new deal could be back on the table. Biden’s close ties to the Obama administration — the administration that really drove home the Iran deal — combined with Biden’s more internationalist attitude, suggest that he will push for a nuclear deal similar to that which was agreed in 2015. Whether or not Iran will now accept such a deal is the big question.
On the 27th November 2020, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s top nuclear scientist, was shot dead in a convoy outside the Iranian capital, Tehran. Reports on how he was killed have been conflicting, with some suggesting there was a firefight between an armed group and Fakhrizadeh’s bodyguards, and others suggesting that Dr Fakhrizadeh had been killed by a vehicle-mounted weapon controlled by AI (2).
The assassination has said to have been linked to Israel, who regard Iran as their primary international threat, with the feeling being very much mutual. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu felt the 2015 deal didn’t go far enough to constrain Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons and influence politics in the region. As a result, it is likely that this attack was an attempt to throw a spanner in the works for any future negotiations between the US and Iran.
Whilst considered by many to be the founding father of Iran’s nuclear programme, the death of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh will not significantly impede Iran’s potential to produce nuclear weapons, rather his assassination was a move towards provocation, to offset any progress towards a nuclear deal between the US and Iran (3).
Likely conducted with the blessing of still-acting President Donald Trump, a staunch opponent to any deal, the attack will certainly make it harder for Biden to negotiate a deal as successful as the one previously agreed in 2015, if one can be agreed at all.
President-elect Biden will likely still look to pursue a deal, but the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh serves to further highlight US-Israeli divergence on the topic of Iran. Furthermore, it raises the question of how US-Israeli relations will develop under Joe Biden.
With President Trump leaving office, the era of “virtually blind endorsement” (4) of Israel’s right wing will come to an end. President-elect Biden has already pledged to reopen the office for the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) in Washington that the Trump administration shut and to restart US aid for UN agencies that assist Palestinians (4).
The assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was a bold move on the part of the Israeli’s, sending a strong message that whilst Trump may be leaving office and Biden will be coming in, Israeli attitudes towards Iran will not change, regardless of the US stance and at whatever cost to US-Israeli relations.
(1) BBC (2019) Iran nuclear deal: Key details
(3) Haltiwanger (2020) An Iranian nuclear scientist was assassinated to make it harder for Biden to return to the 2015 nuclear deal, according to top experts. Business Insider.
(4) Manson (2020) Joe Biden’s relationship with Israel to be tested over Iran. Financial Times.