The assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh may not much have impact on the Iranian nuclear programme he helped build, but it will certainly make it harder to salvage the deal intended to restrict that programme, and that is – so far - the most plausible motive.
Israel is widely agreed to be the most likely perpetrator. Mossad is reported to have been behind a string of assassinations of other Iranian nuclear scientists – reports Israeli officials have occasionally hinted were true.
According to former officials, the Obama administration leaned on Israel to discontinue those assassinations in 2013, as it started talks with Tehran that led two years later to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), by which Iran accepted constraints on its nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief.
It would be a fair guess that Joe Biden would also oppose such assassinations when he takes office on 20 January and tries to reconstitute the JCPOA – which has been left wounded but just about alive in the wake of Donald Trump’s withdrawal in 2018.
If Mossad was indeed behind the assassination, Israel had a closing window of opportunity in which to carry it out with a green light from an American president, and there seems little doubt that Trump, seeking to play a spoiler role in his last weeks in office, would have given approval, if not active assistance. He is reported to have asked for military options in Iran, in the aftermath of his election defeat.
“I think they would have had to get a green light from Washington. I don’t think they would do it without,” Dina Esfandiary, a fellow at the Century Foundation, said. “In terms of motive, I think it’s just pushing Iran to do something stupid to ensure that the Biden administration’s hands are tied when they come in to pursue negotiations and de-escalation.’
Killing Fakhrizadeh would serve other ends, though arguably with less effect. When the nuclear watchdog the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) wrote up its final assessment of the military side of the Iranian programme, he was the only scientist mentioned by name, as being the mastermind behind the Amad plan to develop at least the capability of building a bomb.
The IAEA found that Amad was wound up in 2003 but Fakhrizadeh remained at the hub of a network of scientists with knowledge and experience of nuclear weapons work; that work did not continue after 2003 as a “coordinated effort”.
Ariane Tabatabai, Middle East fellow at the German Marshall Fund and author of a book on Iran’s national security strategy, compared the killing of Fakhrizadeh to the US assassination of the Revolutionary Guards general Qassem Suleimani at the beginning of the year.
“Fakhrizadeh was to Iran’s nuclear program what Suleimani was to its proxy network,” Tabatabai said. “He was instrumental to its development and the creation of an infrastructure to support it, ensuring that his death won’t fundamentally alter the course of Iran’s nuclear programme.”
Ellie Geranmayeh, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, agreed with the comparison, saying the killing was unlikely to have a profound impact on Iran’s capacity to develop nuclear weapons, if Tehran took the decision to do so.
“While Fakhrizadeh is believed to have played crucial role advancing Iran’s nuclear activities, the program is not beholden to one person – just as the IRGC [Revolutionary Guards] wasn’t in case of Soleimani’s assassination,” Geranmayeh said.
“The objective behind the killing wasn’t to hinder the nuclear programme but to undermine diplomacy.”
If that is indeed the objective, will it succeed? Until now, Iran has been measured in its responses, both to Suleimani’s killing and to the waves of sanctions imposed by the Trump administration in the wake of the JCPOA withdrawal.
But can Tehran continue to hold its nerve? A retaliatory strike could make it even harder for a Biden administration to negotiate the complex steps the US and Iran would have to take to return to compliance with the JCPOA, and open talks on other issues. The Fakhrizadeh killing may not be the last blow delivered during the last days of the Trump era.
“The problem is if you keep pushing their buttons, eventually it’s going to work,” Esfandiary said. “I don’t know if this is going to be the occasion, but certainly the calls for proper action in Tehran are going to increase across the political spectrum. The hardliners have already started. So it’s becoming increasingly difficult for the Iranians to act with restraint.”