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The assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist shows the crisis Biden must first tackle

The murder of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the Iranian nuclear scientist, is deepening crisis in the Middle East, and one that could well drag the new American administration into it as soon as it arrives in office.

One of rare photos of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

Reports suggest that Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was one of the most guarded of Iranian nuclear scientists. Other Iranian scientists allegedly working on the country’s nuclear programme (Iran says it is only for non-conflict use, many including the US and Israel do not believe that) have been murdered in mysterious circumstances before, but Fakhrizadeh was always too well-guarded to be attacked.

Now – depending on the version you believe – he has either been shot dead by assailants or a suicide bomb blew him up as he travelled in a car. No one has yet taken responsibility for the killing, but Iran’s foreign minister has said that the killing has “serious indications of Israeli role”. In America, President Donald Trump, now in the last days of his presidency and preparing for the incoming Joe Biden, has not commented on the murder but he has retweeted Israeli journalist Yossi Melman that the Iranian scientist’s death was “is a major psychological and professional blow for Iran”. In 2019, Trump authorised the killing via air strike of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, widely regarded as the second-most powerful person in Iran as the head of an elite military force, after the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Like Soleimani, Fakhrizadeh is said to have been associated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp.

The Israeli government has not commented on the matter but in 2018 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanayhu had highlighted Fakhrizadeh as a prime candidate to watch out for in the Iranian nuclear programme. Israel is widely believed to possess nuclear weapons though this has never been confirmed officially by the country. It is among a handful of countries that have not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Since the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, and Germany, in 2015, Iran had been committed to a limit on its enriched uranium stockpile. It now has around 12 times that limit. It also submitted to more intense scrutiny from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). All this to ensure relaxation in sanctions, especially from the US, which has crippled its economy. The Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA and bringing sanctions back into effect. In 2019, Iran announced that it had breached the limit set to its enriched uranium stockpile according to the JCPOA.

The murder of Fakhrizadeh comes soon after reports that Trump had enquired about the possibility of strikes on Iran before he leaves office (but was dissuaded by aides), and reports of a recent meeting in Saudi Arabia (Shia Iran’s main Sunni rival in the region) between the Israeli prime minister, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Saudi Arabia’s King Salman expressed concern recently that the world is not doing enough to stop Tehran from building a nuclear weapons arsenal.

As Saudi Arabia moves towards normalizing ties with Israel (urged by the Saudis, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have already struck peace deals with Israel), it would have greater ammunition to push for deeper sanctions or even an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities led by the US. But this would embroil the incoming Joe Biden administration in another potential debilitating war even before it settles in. The spectre of a wider Shia-Sunni war enabled by the US cannot be ruled out, though such a scenario would undoubtedly further devastate the world economy reeling from a structural slowdown and the Covid-19 pandemic. It must be noted that John Brennan, director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) under President Barack Obama, one of the key architects of the Iran nuclear deal, has tweeted angrily against the killing of Fakhrizadeh saying: “This was a criminal act & highly reckless. It risks lethal retaliation & a new round of regional conflict. Iranian leaders would be wise to wait for the return of responsible American leadership on the global stage & to resist the urge to respond against perceived culprits”. Brennan realises, perhaps, the risk of the Biden government being dragged into a conflict from day one.

The Middle East is changing in historic ways, and yet, not changing in fundamental ways, all at the same time. Peace between the Gulf States and Israel can transform the region lifting clouds of eternal war, but if this new alliance gets embroiled in war, with theological underpinnings, with Iran, dragging in the US, and perhaps inevitably Russia (and even China) in some way, then the world will not recover easily from its current slump. In fact, Iran's foreign minister, after tweeting his outrage in English, took the unusual step of demanding intervention from the international community for the murder by tweeting in Chinese. His tweet called upon the "international community to condemn state terrorism and jointly oppose adventurism that exacerbates regional tensions".

A Biden administration will begin life in an America divided by racial anger and economic distress. The last thing it needs is to add war to that list. Tackling the shifting sands in the Middle East is likely to be the most urgent crisis Joe Biden faces as he comes into the White House.


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