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Analysis

Killing scientist batters, but doesn’t shatter, Biden plans to reenter nuke deal

Fakhrizadeh assassination adds to Tehran’s growing list of grievances and could prompt it to retaliate; still, it doesn’t diminish Iran’s desire to return to a sanction-ending deal

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Students of Iran's Basij paramilitary force burn posters depicting US President Donald Trump (top) and President-elect Joe Biden, during a rally in front of the foreign ministry in Tehran, on November 28, 2020, to protest the killing of prominent nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh a day earlier near the capital. (Atta Kenare/AFP)
Students of Iran's Basij paramilitary force burn posters depicting US President Donald Trump (top) and President-elect Joe Biden, during a rally in front of the foreign ministry in Tehran, on November 28, 2020, to protest the killing of prominent nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh a day earlier near the capital. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

NEW YORK — Within hours of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh’s assassination on Friday, social media accounts affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps began posting propaganda images depicting the slain nuclear scientist alongside former IRGC commander Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi comrade Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who were killed in a similar targeted attack.

The message coming from the highest levels of the Islamic Republic was that Iran planned not only to avenge the death of the most recent “martyr,” but the killings of Soleimani and al-Muhandis as well.

The operation that took out Fakhrizadeh has been widely attributed to Israel, whereas the January drone strike on Soleimani and al-Muhandis was carried out by the US. To Tehran though, they are part of the same growing list of grievances that many analysts speculate will make President-elect Joe Biden’s plans to re-enter the Iran nuclear accord a much more difficult task.

Several regional experts who spoke with The Times of Israel Monday acknowledged the degree to which Fakhrizadeh’s killing complicates matters for the incoming Biden administration, yet they also argued that Iran’s interest in reaching an agreement to ease crippling American sanctions remains undiminished.

But while the raft of Trump-imposed sanctions could be justified as leverage to be exploited by Biden to entice Tehran back to the negotiating table, targeted killings cannot be placed in the same basket. The Washington-based analysts who spoke to The Times of Israel argued that rather than coaxing a weakened regime into reluctantly making its way to the negotiating table, such strikes are more likely to convince Iran to rebuff talks altogether — which may have been the main aim of the assassination.

The ‘real target’ of the assassination

The killing of Fakhrizadeh, the scientist that Israel and the US accused of heading Iran’s rogue nuclear weapons program, was part of an effort to “salt the field for Biden and lock the Iranians into a position of intransigence,” argued Hussein Ibish of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (AGSIW).

The Middle East analyst maintained that even before the military-style ambush on the outskirts of Tehran, efforts by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani were vulnerable to the “willingness and ability of hardliners [in the Islamic Republic] to agitate against any resumed dialogue with Washington.”

“The risk any Iranian leaders will be taking in reengaging with the US has [now] greatly increased,” Ibish said.

AGSIW Iran expert Ali Alfoneh went further, arguing that the “nuclear deal was Israel’s real target in the latest assassination.” Jerusalem has not commented on Fakhrizadeh’s killing, but three Western intelligence officials told The New York Times last week that the Jewish state was responsible.

Members of Iranian forces pray around the coffin of slain nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh during the burial ceremony at Imamzadeh Saleh shrine in northern Tehran, on November 30, 2020. (HAMED MALEKPOUR / TASNIM NEWS / AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had warned about the threat posed by Fakhrizadeh as early as 2018 and just days ago cautioned against Biden’s plans to re-enter the nuclear accord officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Alfoneh said that despite what he called the attempt by perpetrators of the Friday strike to “lure” Iran into direct confrontation, he expected Tehran to stick with its practice of “strategic patience” in deciding when to respond to such attacks.

“This is good news for the Biden administration and the prospects for US-Iran negotiations,” he added, while warning that “strategic patience comes at a domestic price, as the Iranian public questions the abilities of the regime’s security services” to protect its most senior officials.

Sanctions relief vs. national honor

Brookings Institute Iran expert Suzanne Maloney appeared less upbeat about Biden’s prospects of resuming engagement, saying that Fakhrizadeh’s killing shifted the sides “back into escalation mode.”

“I’m less concerned about the [assassination’s] fallout for the nuclear deal,” she said. “What I am concerned about is how Iran will play its cards throughout the region and how this will impact Israeli and US security.”

However, Maloney argued that “anxiety over prospects of diplomacy is overstated.”

A photo released by the semi-official Fars News Agency shows the scene where Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed in Absard, a small city just east of the capital, Tehran, Iran, Friday, Nov. 27, 2020 (Fars News Agency via AP); insert: Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in an undated photo (Courtesy)

What drove Iran toward the negotiations with the Obama administration that led to the 2015 agreement was “a fundamental need to re-access the international financial system,” Maloney maintained, asserting that this need remains as crucial as ever.

She acknowledged that Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear program and regional hegemony are “inherently connected,” but argued that Tehran won’t “retaliate to the latest killing by withholding their willingness to talk with US about re-entry into the nuclear deal. They are going to retaliate in the region though.”

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Kate Bauer was not as convinced of the certainty of an Iranian retaliation, be it by slamming the door on the possibility for talks with the Biden administration or by combating US or Israeli interests in the region.

She said Iran is not interested in “flipping the narrative” that has seen European sympathies for Tehran grow amid the Trump administration’s snapback of sanctions against the Islamic Republic following Washington’s 2018 withdrawal from the internationally-backed JCPOA.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands in front of a picture of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who he named as the head of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, April 30, 2018 (YouTube screenshot)

“There are reasons you can use to argue that Iran will be likely to respond, but they probably understand that doing so would put at risk the opportunity to receive relief, which is what they need,” Bauer said, while conceding that her stance was reliant on a bit of “wishful thinking.”

Regardless, she maintained that the strike complicates things for Biden, who would have had a hard time returning to the Iran deal even before Fakhrizadeh’s killing.

While Biden has talked about re-entering the JCPOA only after Iran begins complying with the terms of the accord, Tehran has said it wants to see sanctions relief upfront. Moreover, the president-elect’s aides have said an American re-entry into the deal will require a commitment from Iran to enter follow-up negotiations that will cover non-nuclear issues — a demand that even so-called moderates in the Islamic Republic are unlikely to accept, especially given that parliamentary elections are just months away.

Leverage or sabotage?

In a January address days after Soleimani’s killing, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the strike as part of a larger plan to “re-establish deterrence” against Iran along with Washington’s sweeping sanctions regime.

Some backers of the administration’s “maximum pressure” policy toward Iran have made the same argument in the aftermath of the Fakhrizadeh assassination, arguing that like sanctions, it could be used as leverage by the Biden administration, which will have an easier time negotiating with a weakened and embarrassed Tehran.

Iran’s Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi pays his respect to the body of slain scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh among his family, in Tehran, Iran, November 28, 2020. (Mizan News Agency via AP)

But AGSIW’s Ibish argued that the two policies cannot be conflated. “Sanctions are actions that have consequences for an entire society and are ongoing pressure points that can be eased or intensified, like a valve,” he said.

“The killing of a one man — even if he was engaged in nefarious activity — is a different matter because once it’s done it’s done.”

“The sanctions are useable as leverage, [Fakhrizadeh’s killing] is sabotage,” Ibish maintained.

He argued that inside the Iranian regime, it is possible to have “rational conversations” with officials regarding sanctions. “But assassinating senior officials puts them in vengeance [mode] where there’s nothing that can be accomplished. It becomes about pride and honor… which aren’t natural issues to be negotiated.”

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