Friday’s assassination of top Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh has blown a significant hole in Tehran’s unrelenting ambition to acquire nuclear weapons. He was the program’s mastermind who drew together many strands of its research. He led the clandestine acquisition of vital components in defiance of global sanctions, the building of missiles and guidance systems, and the miniaturisation needed to install nuclear devices into warheads. As much as Dr Fakhrizadeh’s demise is a major setback for Iran, it also underlines the difficulties confronting US president-elect Joe Biden as he prepares to make good on his election pledges to abandon Donald Trump’s unrelentingly hardline stance on Iran and reopen negotiations about returning the US to Barack Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal.
Israel has remained silent about Iranian charges that the Mossad spy agency was behind Dr Fakhrizadeh’s killing. But on Friday night, Israeli reporters were briefed about what a setback it was for Iran’s nuclear plans. Unusually following such assassinations attributed to Israel, major Israeli television stations on Saturday described the killing as “the pinnacle of Israeli strategy to thwart Iran getting the bomb”. There were also reports that Mossad chief Yossi Cohen attended an unprecedented meeting in Saudi Arabia last week involving Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and two other “anti-Iran hawks” — Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The meeting coincided with Donald Trump ordering B-52 Stratofortress bombers to the Gulf, while Israel’s military was put on high alert.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Sunday appeared to rule out immediate retaliation. He vowed revenge “at the right time”, saying Iran was “too wise to fall into” Israel’s “trap”. In a reference to Iran’s hopes for re-engagement with the Biden administration, Mr Rouhani said: “The savage assassination shows our enemies are having anxious weeks … they feel the pressure is going to decrease … the world’s conditions are changing.”
Mr Netanyahu, a close ally of President Trump in achieving recent significant diplomatic breakthroughs with moderate Sunni states, has made his abhorrence at the prospect of Mr Biden returning the US to the Obama nuclear deal crystal clear. Some US analysts have suggested Dr Fakhrizadeh’s assassination should be seen in the context of Mr Netanyahu and Mr Trump working to create circumstances that will lock in maximum pressure against any softening on Iran under a Biden White House. That remains to be seen. But what is not in doubt is that the situation shows what a tinderbox Iran remains and why Mr Biden should be in no rush to alleviate the concerted pressure Mr Trump has successfully built up against the oppressive Iranian regime by rushing to return to negotiations over the nuclear deal.
Ahead of Mr Biden’s arrival in the White House, Dr Fakhrizadeh’s assassination is a timely reminder that, from the start, Mr Obama’s flawed nuclear deal was built on Iranian deception and obfuscation. In May 2018 Mr Netanyahu revealed a secret Iranian nuclear archive containing chapter and verse on Tehran’s ongoing, but constantly denied, nuclear weapons building program. At its pinnacle was Dr Fakhrizadeh. “Remember that name,” Mr Netanyahu said as he detailed the scientist’s work building some of the world’s deadliest weapons for the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.
Sanctions imposed by Mr Trump have seriously weakened the rogue regime. Tehran now exports only a quarter of the 2.5 million barrels of oil a day it shipped previously, depriving it of $US50bn a year. Iran has increased its violations against the deal. It now has 12 times the enriched uranium allowed under the original accord. Germany, France and Britain, which still support the deal, met in Berlin last week urging Iran to uphold it. Up to the time of his death Dr Fakhrizadeh was working secretly at building Tehran’s nuclear weapons. That should convince Mr Biden of the need to keep the pressure on Tehran. Rushing into a new deal would risk blowing up the progress Mr Trump has achieved in getting moderate Sunni states to normalise relations with Israel. Mr Biden must insist that unless Tehran comes clean about its nuclear program there will be no talks.