Iran’s most senior nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, died in a hospital after several gunmen attacked his car in a suburb of Tehran. The killing came almost 10 years to the day after a similar attack that took the life of another top Iranian nuclear scientist.
“Terrorists murdered an eminent Iranian scientist today,” Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, wrote on Twitter. “This cowardice — with serious indications of Israeli role — shows desperate warmongering of perpetrators.”
Actually, the ambush represents yet another serious failure by Iran’s security apparatus, which doesn’t seem able to protect the officials who most need protecting.
Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic has continued its practice of hostage-taking, imprisoning visiting foreign nationals whom it invariably accuses, without evidence, of spying for Israel or the United States. Evidently, Tehran views hostage-taking as one of its few options for striking back at its enemies in the West — apparently failing to understand that such abductions completely undermine its desire to be seen as a law-abiding member of the international community.
On Wednesday, Iran reminded the world of this odious policy when it freed Australian-British dual national Kylie Moore-Gilbert, a university lecturer who had spent more than two years in prison. She was released in exchange for three Iranians who had been arrested in Thailand for a failed plot to murder Israeli diplomats.
Moore-Gilbert’s only link to Israel, meanwhile, seems to be a relationship she had with a man from that country.
Just a day before Moore-Gilbert’s release, Iran’s judiciary apparently upheld a death sentence for Ahmad Reza Jalali, a Swedish-Iranian doctor who is being held on similarly unsubstantiated charges of spying for Israel. His family says his execution could take place any day.
Yet security breaches like the Fakhrizadeh assassination continue to call into question the effectiveness of Iranian intelligence and security services.
Could it be that the Islamic Republic’s ineptitude in such matters means that it is not as serious a threat to global security as many of its adversaries have long claimed?
This is one of the core foreign policy issues that President-elect Joe Biden will face as he reimagines the United States’ approach to Iran and how to implement it.
With only a few weeks left until the incoming administration has a chance to relaunch negotiations with the Islamic Republic, Tehran’s foes — in Washington and elsewhere in the Middle East — are gearing up to do whatever they can to stop such efforts even before they begin.
In this respect, the mission to kill Fakhrizadeh was as predictable as it was foolish.
While Israel was probably behind Friday’s attack, given what looks like its decade-long track record of hunting Iranian scientists, it’s difficult to believe that the Trump administration was unaware of the planned assassination.
We know that, following his loss in the U.S. election, President Trump asked his advisers to offer options for strikes on Iranian military installations. The intelligence community and top military advisers oppose the idea. But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — America’s top “diplomat” — shares with his boss the attitude that expertise doesn’t matter nearly as much as finding people to agree with you.
Pompeo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman share an obsession with toppling the current Iranian regime. Pompeo’s unsuccessful attempts at regime change in Iran have abetted Netanyahu and bin Salman’s hubris, a trait that is increasingly turning these longtime allies into security liabilities.
The three men met this week as part of Pompeo’s farewell tour around the region. Rarely in our history has authoritarian thuggery been more enabled than on Pompeo’s watch, and U.S. national security will be paying for it for years to come.
Biden must push back against Israeli adventurism and Saudi expansionism when he enters office. The Obama administration hoped the Iran nuclear deal would have the happy side effect of restraining our regional allies’ most belligerent tendencies, but there simply wasn’t enough time to test that hypothesis before Trump ditched the entire plan in favor of a diametrically opposed approach.
The Trump administration’s policy, which enjoys support and cooperation from Israel and Saudi Arabia, has inflicted significant damage on Iran through sanctions and sabotage. Yet the current leadership in Tehran continues to limp along.
As usual, the impact has been felt primarily by ordinary people. Sanctions have imposed a heavy cost on Iranian citizens, and innocent foreign nationals keep getting caught up in the dirty game of Tehran’s hostage-taking.
Targeting innocent victims as political hostages does little to obscure the fact that Iran’s intelligence and security services are ill-equipped to defend against actual foreign infiltration.
Iran’s political establishment faces a serious test of will in the coming weeks. So does Biden. His challenge will be to engage Iran without appearing to appease it, while avoiding making undue concessions to any of our regional partners when they disregard international law. He can start by condemning both political assassinations and state hostage-taking.