Explained: Assassination in Iran could limit Biden’s options. Was that the goal?

By: New York Times | November 29, 2020 9:24:37 am President-elect Joe Biden speaks Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020, in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) Written by David E. Sanger The assassination of the scientist who led Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon for the past two decades threatens to cripple President-elect Joe Biden’s effort to revive the Iran nuclear deal before he can even begin his diplomacy with Iran. And that may well have been a main goal of the operation. Intelligence officials say there is little doubt that Israel was behind the killing — it had all the hallmarks of a precisely timed operation by Mossad, the country’s spy agency. And the Israelis have done nothing to dispel that view. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long identified Iran as an existential threat, and named the assassinated scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, as national enemy No. 1, capable of building a weapon that could threaten a country of 8 million in a single blast. But Netanyahu also has a second agenda. “There must be no return to the previous nuclear agreement,” he declared shortly after it became clear that Biden — who has proposed exactly that — would be the next president. Netanyahu believes a covert bomb program is continuing, until Friday under Fakhrizadeh’s leadership, and would be unconstrained after 2030, when the nuclear accord’s restraints on Iran’s ability to produce as much nuclear fuel as it wants expires. To critics of the deal, that is its fatal flaw. “The reason for assassinating Fakhrizadeh wasn’t to impede Iran’s war potential, it was to impede diplomacy,” Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department nonproliferation official, wrote on Twitter on Friday. [embedded content] It may have been both. Whatever the mix of motives, Biden must pick up the pieces in just seven weeks. The question is whether the deal the president-elect has outlined — dropping the nuclear-related sanctions President Donald Trump has imposed over the past two years if Iran returns strictly to the nuclear limits in the 2015 accord — was shot to pieces along with Fakhrizadeh’s SUV in the mountain town of Absard, Iran, east of Tehran. The answer lies largely in how Iran reacts in the next few weeks. Three times since the start of the year, Iran has been on the receiving end of highly visible, highly damaging attacks. First came the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian commander who ran the elite Quds force of the Revolutionary Guard, in a drone strike in Iraq, where the Trump administration said he was planning attacks on U.S. forces. Also Read | Killing of suspected Iranian nuclear mastermind risks confrontation as Trump exits Protesters burn an American and Israeli flag in Tehran on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020, a day after the killing of the Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. (Arash Khamooshi/The New York Times) Then, in early July came the mysterious explosion at a centrifuge research and development center at Natanz, a few hundred yards from the underground fuel-production center that the U.S. and Israel attacked more than a decade ago with a sophisticated cyberweapon. And now the killing of Fakhrizadeh, a shadowy figure often described as the Iranian equivalent of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who oversaw the Manhattan Project more than 75 years ago in the race for the U.S. to develop the world’s first nuclear weapon. If Iran holds off on significant retaliation, then the bold move to take out the chief of the nuclear program will have paid off, even if the assassination drives the program further underground. And if the Iranians retaliate, giving Trump a pretext to launch a return strike before he leaves office in January, Biden will be inheriting bigger problems than just the wreckage of a 5-year-old diplomatic document. Both those options seem fine with Trump’s departing foreign policy team, which is trying to lock in the radical reversal of Iran policy that has taken place over the past four years. “The Trump administration’s goal seems plain,” said Robert Malley, who leads the International Crisis Group and was a negotiator of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The administration’s plan, he said, was “to take advantage of the time remaining before it heads to the exits to solidify its legacy and make it all the more difficult for its successor to resume diplomacy with Iran and rejoin the nuclear deal.”

Explained: Assassination in Iran could limit Biden’s options. Was that the goal?
By: New York Times | November 29, 2020 9:24:37 am President-elect Joe Biden speaks Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020, in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) Written by David E. Sanger The assassination of the scientist who led Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon for the past two decades threatens to cripple President-elect Joe Biden’s effort to revive the Iran nuclear deal before he can even begin his diplomacy with Iran. And that may well have been a main goal of the operation. Intelligence officials say there is little doubt that Israel was behind the killing — it had all the hallmarks of a precisely timed operation by Mossad, the country’s spy agency. And the Israelis have done nothing to dispel that view. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long identified Iran as an existential threat, and named the assassinated scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, as national enemy No. 1, capable of building a weapon that could threaten a country of 8 million in a single blast. But Netanyahu also has a second agenda. “There must be no return to the previous nuclear agreement,” he declared shortly after it became clear that Biden — who has proposed exactly that — would be the next president. Netanyahu believes a covert bomb program is continuing, until Friday under Fakhrizadeh’s leadership, and would be unconstrained after 2030, when the nuclear accord’s restraints on Iran’s ability to produce as much nuclear fuel as it wants expires. To critics of the deal, that is its fatal flaw. “The reason for assassinating Fakhrizadeh wasn’t to impede Iran’s war potential, it was to impede diplomacy,” Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department nonproliferation official, wrote on Twitter on Friday. [embedded content] It may have been both. Whatever the mix of motives, Biden must pick up the pieces in just seven weeks. The question is whether the deal the president-elect has outlined — dropping the nuclear-related sanctions President Donald Trump has imposed over the past two years if Iran returns strictly to the nuclear limits in the 2015 accord — was shot to pieces along with Fakhrizadeh’s SUV in the mountain town of Absard, Iran, east of Tehran. The answer lies largely in how Iran reacts in the next few weeks. Three times since the start of the year, Iran has been on the receiving end of highly visible, highly damaging attacks. First came the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian commander who ran the elite Quds force of the Revolutionary Guard, in a drone strike in Iraq, where the Trump administration said he was planning attacks on U.S. forces. Also Read | Killing of suspected Iranian nuclear mastermind risks confrontation as Trump exits Protesters burn an American and Israeli flag in Tehran on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020, a day after the killing of the Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. (Arash Khamooshi/The New York Times) Then, in early July came the mysterious explosion at a centrifuge research and development center at Natanz, a few hundred yards from the underground fuel-production center that the U.S. and Israel attacked more than a decade ago with a sophisticated cyberweapon. And now the killing of Fakhrizadeh, a shadowy figure often described as the Iranian equivalent of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who oversaw the Manhattan Project more than 75 years ago in the race for the U.S. to develop the world’s first nuclear weapon. If Iran holds off on significant retaliation, then the bold move to take out the chief of the nuclear program will have paid off, even if the assassination drives the program further underground. And if the Iranians retaliate, giving Trump a pretext to launch a return strike before he leaves office in January, Biden will be inheriting bigger problems than just the wreckage of a 5-year-old diplomatic document. Both those options seem fine with Trump’s departing foreign policy team, which is trying to lock in the radical reversal of Iran policy that has taken place over the past four years. “The Trump administration’s goal seems plain,” said Robert Malley, who leads the International Crisis Group and was a negotiator of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The administration’s plan, he said, was “to take advantage of the time remaining before it heads to the exits to solidify its legacy and make it all the more difficult for its successor to resume diplomacy with Iran and rejoin the nuclear deal.”