The assassination of a top Iranian nuclear scientist will make United States President-elect Joe Biden’s ability to restart diplomacy between Washington and Tehran even more difficult, US-based analysts said on Friday, just hours after Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed.
Biden, who will take office on January 20, has said he wants to return to a 2015 international accord that curbed the Iranian nuclear programme – a move that would signal a pullback from President Donald Trump’s hardline “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.
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While it remained unclear who was responsible for Fakhrizadeh’s killing outside Tehran, Iranian officials pointed the finger at Israel, a key US ally that has advocated for Trump’s hardline position against the Iranian government.
“You can imagine how open the United States would be to negotiations if … before they could start, the Iranians would do something like this against Israel or against the US itself,” said Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute, a think-tank in Washington, DC.
Parsi said the assassination of Fakhrizadeh, a high-ranking nuclear physicist and head of the Research and Innovation Organisation in Iran’s defence ministry, created “a win-win” situation for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
If the Iranian government responds, Netanyahu can drag Washington into a military confrontation with Tehran, Parsi said, while if Iran shows restraint, the Israeli leader has created an atmosphere that makes US diplomacy with Iran more difficult.
Israel, which for years has been accused of conducting a series of targeted killings of Iranian nuclear scientists, declined to immediately comment on Fakhrizadeh’s assassination.
“From Netanyahu’s perspective, this is a moment for him to be able to undermine Biden. In some ways, Biden is the real target here,” Parsi told Al Jazeera.
Renewed nuclear deal
The Trump administration unilaterally withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 as part of its push to isolate Tehran, and it has levelled economic sanctions against key Iranian industries and officials.
Political analysts and observers have raised concerns that Trump will take further action in the last weeks of his administration to further destabilise Iran and its allies in the Middle East – and put the incoming Biden administration in a difficult position when it takes office.
Biden’s nominee for US Secretary of State Tony Blinken told world security leaders at a conference in August that he hoped the US could build on a renewed nuclear agreement with Iran that would be “stronger and longer”.
Parsi said Biden, who was US vice president when President Barack Obama signed the nuclear accord with Iran and other world powers in 2015, “would need to start diplomacy rather quickly, lift sanctions and go back into the nuclear deal” to mend the US-Iran relationship.
He added that US and Iranian officials are hoping to discuss other matters, such as ballistic missiles and regional politics, but Friday’s assassination has made the prospect of that even more difficult.
“The likelihood that the Iranians are going to be able to be open to compromise and engagement … is clearly severely damaged,” Parsi said.
Neither Trump nor Biden commented directly on Fakhrizadeh’s assassination on Friday, though the Republican president retweeted Israeli writer Yossi Melman, who said the scientist’s death “is a major psychological and professional blow for Iran”.
Top current and former US officials publicly raised concerns, however, including ex-CIA Director John Brennan, who called the attack “a criminal act & highly reckless”.
“Iranian leaders would be wise to wait for the return of responsible American leadership on the global stage & to resist the urge to respond against perceived culprits,” Brennan tweeted.
Democratic Senator Chris Murphy said he had not been briefed on the assassination of Fakhrizadeh, but that “every time America or an ally assassinates a foreign leader outside a declaration of war, we normalize the tactic as a tool of statecraft.”
If the primary purpose of the killing of Mr. Fakhrizadeh was to make it harder to restart the Iran nuclear agreement, then this assassination does not make America, Israel or the world safer.
— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) November 27, 2020
Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the assassination comes at a “combustible” moment.
In mid-November, Trump asked senior advisers for options to strike Iran’s nuclear research facility at Natanz before he leaves office, according to US media reports. An Iranian government spokesman warned of a “crushing response” if Iran were to be attacked.
The US Air Force then flew a long-range B-52 bomber from its base in North Dakota to the Middle East “to deter aggression and reassure US partners and allies”, the US Central Command said on November 21.
“Between now and the onset of the Biden administration – because of the Iranian concern about provoking a unilateral strike by Trump on Natanz – they really are constrained in terms of retaliating,” Miller told Al Jazeera.
“The Israelis can calculate that now is a good time to do stuff like this,” Miller said.
“You could see a series of factors coming together that could make the next few months pretty combustible.”
While the assassination of Fakhrizadeh was shocking to some, Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver’s School of International Studies, said in the context of recent Iran-US relations, it “fits a pre-existing pattern”.
“The pattern is the attempt by the Trump administration to bring Iran to its knees, to possibly topple the regime, to cripple it through maximum sanctions,” Hashemi told Al Jazeera.
He likened Fakhrizadeh’s killing to the US assassination of top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a Trump-ordered drone strike on January 3 near Baghdad international airport.
“We almost had a US-Iran war at that time,” said Hashemi, adding that with Trump only a few weeks away from the end of his presidency, more actions “hoping to provoke Iran into a retaliation” are likely.
That will make future US-Iran negotiations much more difficult, he said, “and that’s precisely the point”.