The assassination last week of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s most important nuclear scientist, was aimed as much at the administration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden as it was the regime in Tehran. The murder raises tensions in the Persian Gulf region as Iranian authorities threaten retaliation and nationalist Iranians demand action. The killing raises legal, moral and strategic questions, all of which must be addressed as the political context in which those decisions must be made is being transformed.
Fakhrizadeh was one of the architects of Iran’s nuclear program and head of its bomb-building effort, one that was reportedly halted in 2003, but was suspected to have continued in secret. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu identified him by name in a 2018 presentation, calling him national enemy No. 1.
Fakhrizadeh was killed in an ambush while traveling outside Tehran. While no group or government has taken credit for the killing, it is generally assumed that Israel is responsible; details are murky, but the strike has the hallmarks of an Israeli operation. Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, called the killing “an act of state terror,” while President Hassan Rouhani promised retaliation “at the proper time,” and accused Israel of being behind the attack. Supreme Leader Ayatalloh Ali Khamemei pledged “definitive punishment of the perpetrators and those who ordered it.”
Opponents of Iran’s nuclear program insist that any act that undercuts Tehran’s march toward nuclear capability is justified. Iran’s possession of a nuclear weapon would pose an existential threat to Israel and would upset the balance of power in the Middle East, transforming the region. Proliferation could trigger nuclear dominoes around the world, as other nations recognize that the obligations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty are no longer sacrosanct.
Yet even if Iran is committed to the acquisition of a nuclear bomb — and its government says it is not, even as it moves past previous limits on nuclear research — there are other ways to impede its progress. Last summer, there were a series of explosions at nuclear research and testing sites that most experts attribute to Israeli sabotage. A decade ago a cyberattack destroyed about 20% of the country’s centrifuges, setting back any plans for several years. While Fakhrizadeh was important to the program, he had helped build a technical and scientific infrastructure that would ensure that the project was not dependent upon him and would survive his death.
Assassination violates moral and legal standards. John Brennan, former director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, called this “a criminal act and highly reckless.” He distinguished the killing of Fakhrizadeh, a scientist and civilian, from those of terrorist leaders or operatives. He rightly warned that this “act of state-sponsored terrorism would be a flagrant violation of international law and encourage more governments to carry out lethal attacks against foreign officials.”
This killing, which followed the assassination of an al-Qaida leader living in Iran, is intended to create a feeling of insecurity and vulnerability among Iranian officials and experts. It could deter others from taking Fakhrizadeh’s position in the national nuclear program. The perpetrators may be also seeking to create momentum for retaliation, an act that would in turn unite other governments against the Iranian regime.
Many observers believe that it is the real motivation for the killing. Biden backed the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the multilateral deal that capped Iranian nuclear ambitions and from which President Donald Trump withdrew the United States in 2018. Jake Sullivan, the person Biden has named to be his national security adviser, was one of the U.S. negotiators. The Trump administration has had limited success reimposing a “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran, while Biden said that he would like to return to the deal.
Iranian officials have indicated an interest in doing so as well, but they insist that they will not renegotiate. A return to the agreement would ease economic pressure on the Iranian government, a weight that has been magnified by the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the region, one that has claimed more than 37,000 lives.
The agreement still makes sense. Military action will not permanently halt the nuclear program, but it will reinforce Iran’s sense of grievance and determination. Returning to the JCPOA and its implementation, as determined by an independent arbiter like the International Atomic Energy Agency would ease pressure on the Iranian economy and begin the process of confidence building that will be the foundation of any ultimately successful long-term deal.
It needs help, however. Other concerned governments, such as Japan, should weigh in, encouraging both the Iranian government and the incoming Biden administration to return to the agreement. It should be made clear to both sides that there is widespread support for the JCPOA and that other governments will work with Iran, the U.S. and other signatories — China, France, Germany and Russia — to ensure compliance with its terms and the expansion of talks to address other issues of concern.
Those who aim to stir up passions and destabilize the region further must not be allowed to prevail. The JCPOA was not perfect but it was better than the status quo. It was intended to be a starting point in a process that would reintegrate Iran into regional affairs and undercut its rationale for acquiring a nuclear weapon. Its logic remains valid.
The Japan Times Editorial Board