Just at the beginning of 2020 the headlines were dominated by the assassination of a prominent Iranian figure and the resultant escalating tensions, it seems that the year will draw to a close in a similar fashion. While Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was not quite the talisman that Qasem Soleimani was, he was a senior officer in the IRGC and undoubtedly a key part of Iran’s nuclear program, and it is therefore no surprise that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has vowed a retaliation against those responsible for Fakhrizadeh’s martyrdom. Although Israel has not publicly taken responsibility for the assassination, Mossad are the most likely culprits. And if Israel is to blame, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would almost certainly have had to get clearance from President Trump. With this in mind, then, it is worth examining the possible outcomes of this escalating situation, particularly with regard to how it affects US-Iran relations and the likelihood of a nuclear deal.
Naturally, attention is focussed on what Iran will do in response to the assassination. While it is probably beyond their current capability to respond directly in kind by assassinating an Israeli of similar stature, there are other measures that Iran could take. For instance, Iran is known to have allies across the Middle East such as Hamas and Hezbollah who could act on their behalf. It seems more likely, however, that for the time being Iran will instead respond by further accelerating its nuclear program.
The Iranian government has just passed a law, approved by the Guardian Council, to enrich its uranium up to 20% and stop allowing inspections of its nuclear plants. The IAEA reported last month that Iran was already stockpiling up to 12 times more uranium than it was permitted under the JCPOA, as well as enriching it up to 4.5% purity, significantly above the 3.67% agreed upon. This decision to step-up the nuclear operation could act as both an attempt to play hardball in anticipation of what will likely be lengthy negotiations next year with the new US administration over re-entering a nuclear deal and a message to the international community that the sanctions imposed on Iran are not limiting the nuclear program.
It should be stated that the final decision on whether or not Iran does accelerate its nuclear program remains with Ayatollah Khamenei, who has not publicly clarified his intentions: indeed, President Rouhani has openly opposed taking these steps.
What this means for the incoming US administration
The fact that President Trump almost certainly gave the green light for the assassination is not a huge shock. It seems Mr Trump is going to make it his mission in his last few weeks in office to continue exerting maximum pressure on Iran through any means possible short of starting a war. He has continued to impose new sanctions on the Iranian oil and financial sectors, as well as even allegedly discussing options to attack an Iranian nuclear site with senior security aides shortly after the presidential election.
It seems that within the current administration there are several different reasons for wanting to keep this pressure on Iran. One public line given by Elliott Abrams, Special US Envoy for Iran, is that it is an attempt to come into future negotiations from a position of strength, such that Iran will have little choice but to agree to a nuclear deal on US terms. Mike Pompeo, however, sees these sanctions as an ongoing preventative measure to limit the funds that the Iranian government can use for malign activities. The fact of the matter is that President Trump’s decision to continue applying pressure on Iran is having negative effects on the civilian population, regardless of how effective it is at containing Iran’s nuclear program.
This is part of the reason the Democrats tend to believe diplomacy is the preferable tool for dealing with Iran. A return to some sort of cooperative agreement in which sanctions were lifted would be far less harsh on normal Iranian people, and even though there is evidence that the Iranian nuclear program was continuing before the US pulled out of the JCPOA, it can’t be denied that the reimposition of sanctions only seems to have accelerated the program. This assassination could act as a stumbling block for the incoming administration, though, because it only increases the possibility that next year’s Iranian presidential election will result in a hardliner winning the presidency, and this will make negotiations even more difficult. Further, depending on how Iran reacts to this assassination, the US may be forced to abandon plans for diplomacy and use more extreme measures.
A final perspective to consider is that of Israel. Israel has known about Mohsen Fakhrizadeh for years and Prime Minister Netanyahu identified him specifically as the leader of the allegedly ongoing AMAD nuclear project in 2018. The decision to assassinate him now, then, is probably more to do with politics than the state of the Iranian nuclear project. Firstly, Netanyahu’s personal political situation is under some threat, with his approval ratings slumping and corruption charges threatening his situation, and the decision to assassinate what will be seen as a national security threat may help to remedy his standing. Crucially, though, this assassination comes at a time where the prospect of diplomacy between Iran and the US seems very likely in the near future, whereas the prospect of Iran producing a nuclear weapon does not.
Should Joe Biden’s government lift many or all of the sanctions on Iran next year, the influence that Iran could have in the Middle East will surely increase. Ayatollah Khamenei has made his opposition to the state of Israel quite clear, and it seems that Israel is understandably more concerned right now with denying Iran a path to Washington than it is with denying Iran a nuclear program. As the situation develops it will become clear whether this assassination was successful in fulfilling this purpose.