An Iranian nuclear scientist was assassinated to make it harder for Biden to return to the 2015 nuclear deal, according to top experts

John Haltiwanger
Biden transition
President-elect Joe Biden. Joe Raedle/Getty Images
  • The assassination of a top Iranian nuclear scientist was designed to derail President-elect Joe Biden's plans to return to the 2015 nuclear deal, according to experts and former US diplomats.

  • One top expert on the Middle East told Insider the assassination "fits with Israeli long-standing policy of targeting Iranian nuclear scientists."

  • A former US diplomat told Insider there "are ample reasons to suspect US involvement" in Friday's attack, citing President Donald Trump's opposition to the Iran nuclear deal.

  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist was likely carried out by Israel with the blessing of the Trump administration as part of an effort to derail a major foreign-policy goal of President-elect Joe Biden, according to former US diplomats and top experts.

Biden has pledged to return the US to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal — formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — an Obama-era pact that both President Donald Trump and Israel oppose.

The assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, often referred to as the father of Iran's nuclear program, may have thrown a major wrench in Biden's plans.

Mark Fitzpatrick, an associate fellow with the International Institute for Strategic Studies and former US diplomat, told Insider there "are ample reasons to suspect US involvement" in Friday's attack.

"The assassination is consistent with Trump's efforts to prevent his successor from restoring the JCPOA," he said,  citing recent reports on the president's request for military options against Iran and a secret meeting between the leaders of Israel and Saudi Arabia that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attended.

'It was a provocation'

Trump in May 2018 controversially withdrew the US from the JCPOA, an agreement designed to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon in exchange for the easing of economic sanctions. The move was criticized by top US allies — the UK, France, and Germany — that were also among the countries that negotiated the deal with Iran.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a top critic of the JCPOA, praised Trump for his decision to break from the deal. Iranian leaders have made threats against Israel for years. Like other critics of the pact, Netanyahu felt the deal didn't go far enough to constrain Iran's ability to develop nuclear weapons, and he also viewed the agreement as insufficient in terms of addressing activities from Tehran, Iran, across the region.

Fakhrizadeh was said to have been behind Iran's Amad, or "Hope," program, which was alleged by the US and other countries to be a covert military operation to conduct research on a nuclear weapon. According to the UN's nuclear watchdog and US intelligence, the program ended in 2003.

"As important as Fakhrizadeh was to Iran's clandestine nuclear-weapons development program, killing him will not significantly impede Iran's potential to produce nuclear weapons, given how much work they have done to date," Fitzpatrick said. "The reason for assassinating him at this time was less about impeding Iran's war potential and more about impeding diplomacy. It was a provocation."

Barbara Slavin, who directs the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, echoed this view in an op-ed for The New York Times.

"Israel and the Trump administration apparently fear that a Biden administration would seek a quick return to the nuclear agreement, which could revive Iran's struggling economy and make it harder to contain its influence in the Middle East," Slavin wrote. "Killing Mr. Fakhrizadeh makes that all the more difficult."

Similarly, Ben Rhodes, a former deputy national security advisor under the Obama administration, said the assassination was an "outrageous action aimed at undermining diplomacy between an incoming US administration and Iran."

TEHRAN, IRAN - NOVEMBER 30: (----EDITORIAL USE ONLY MANDATORY CREDIT - "IRANIAN DEFENSE MINISTRY / HANDOUT" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS----) A funeral ceremony of Iranian Top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh Mahabadi, held at Defense Ministry of Iran in Tehran, Iran on November 30, 2020. Fakhrizadeh, who headed research and innovation at the defense ministry, was attacked Friday in Damavand county near Tehran. (Photo by Iranian Defense Ministry/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
A funeral for Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in Tehran, Iran, on November 30. Iranian Defense Ministry/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Iranian leaders are calling for revenge

Before Fakhrizadeh's killing, Iran's top diplomat signaled that Tehran would be open to discussions with Biden on returning to the 2015 deal. But Iranian leaders are now pushing against such negotiations and vowing to avenge Fakhrizadeh's killing, while blaming Israel for his death.

Israel has not officially addressed Fakhrizadeh's assassination, and the Israeli Embassy in Washington did not comment when contacted by Insider on Friday. But Randa Slim, the director of the Conflict Resolution and Track II Dialogues Program at the Middle East Institute, told Insider that the assassination "fits with Israeli long-standing policy of targeting Iranian nuclear scientists."

A senior US official told The Washington Post that the US was not involved in Fakhrizadeh's assassination but added there was "absolutely no information indicating that it was anyone other than the Israelis." The White House did not offer a comment when contacted by Insider on Friday.

Iran has blamed Israel for a number of assassinations of scientists in recent years, and the Israelis were suspected of coordinating an act of sabotage on Iran's main nuclear facility in July.

Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, and tensions have been high ever since

Though the US and Iran have been adversaries for decades, tensions reached historic heights in the Trump era. The dynamic between Washington and Tehran became increasingly hostile after Trump withdrew from the JCPOA and reimposed economic sanctions on Iran as part of a "maximum pressure" campaign.

The Trump administration aimed to cripple Iran's economy and squeeze it into negotiating a more stringent version of the 2015 nuclear deal. But in many ways the "maximum pressure" campaign only increased Iran's provocative behavior, leading to a series of skirmishes in the Persian Gulf region in 2019.

Trump in January ordered a drone strike that killed Iran's top general, Qassem Soleimani, which raised fears of a new war in the Middle East. Iran retaliated with a missile attack that left dozens of US service members seriously injured, but the two sides ultimately backed away from a broader conflict. But the Soleimani strike essentially led Iran to abandon the 2015 nuclear deal altogether.

Given this history, some in Congress have expressed concerns about the motivations for the attack as well as the consequences.

"If the primary purpose of the killing of Mr. Fakhrizadeh was to make it harder to restart the Iran nuclear agreement, then this assassination does not make America, Israel or the world safer," Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tweeted on Friday.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who was Biden's top opponent in the 2020 Democratic primaries, in a tweet said the Fakhrizadeh assassination was "clearly intended to undermine U.S.-Iran diplomacy" as the Biden administration prepared to take over.

"Diplomacy, not murder, is the best path forward," Sanders added, decrying Fakhrizadeh's killing as "reckless, provocative, and illegal."

The ball is now in Iran's court, but it's faced with a difficult decision

If Iran retaliated over Fakhrizadeh's assassination in a major way, it could jeopardize the economic relief it desperately wants.  

Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, summed it up via Twitter on Sunday, "Iran's dilemma: To restore its economy Iran needs a full or partial return to the nuclear deal. To restore deterrence/pride it will want to avenge Fakhrizadeh's death. Doing the latter without sabotaging the former is most difficult. That's one reason why Fakhrizadeh was killed."

Iran will want to avoid targeting US assets in the waning days of the Trump administration, Slim said, adding that the central objective of "the Iranian reaction will primarily be to establish some form of deterrence against future similar Israeli operations."

Meanwhile, Germany, which has been fighting to save the JCPOA, has urged all parties to exhibit restraint in the coming days.

"A few weeks before the new US administration takes office, it is important to preserve the scope for talks with Iran so that the dispute over Iran's nuclear program can be resolved through negotiations," a spokesman for Germany's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

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