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Opinion Killing scientists won’t stop Iran’s nuclear work. Diplomacy can.

The coffin of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh is carried during a funeral ceremony in Tehran on Monday. (Wana News Agency/Via Reuters)

OVER THE past two decades, the United States and its allies have tried two very different strategies for containing Iran’s nuclear program. One has been to apply crushing sanctions to the regime, launch covert operations to disable key facilities or kill scientists, and threaten overt military action. The other has been to negotiate deals with Tehran that freeze key activities, such as uranium enrichment, and provide for international inspections. It is now apparent which works better.

Two and a half years ago, President Trump repudiated the diplomatic accord negotiated by the Obama administration and applied what he called “maximum pressure.” The 2015 nuclear accord, though flawed, had succeeded in rolling back and freezing Iran’s uranium enrichment. It all but eliminated, at least until the mid-2020s, the threat that Iran would race to build a bomb. In contrast, sanctions and sabotage, even when successful, have failed to stop Iran from advancing toward nuclear weapons production — much less toppled its Islamist regime.

That record won’t be altered by the assassination last week, reportedly by Israel, of the Iranian nuclear scientist who headed its work on a bomb before the project was suspended in 2003. The operation that killed Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was a dazzling piece of covert work by the standards of that shadow world — as was the mysterious explosion in July that wrecked a production facility for centrifuges. U.S. sanctions, which continue to mount, have badly damaged the Iranian economy.

Yet, since May 2018, when Mr. Trump withdrew the United States from the multilateral nuclear accord, Iran has increased its stockpile of enriched uranium to 12 times the total it was limited to under the accord, according to U.N. inspectors. It has resumed enriching uranium at an underground facility that is believed to be invulnerable to air attack, and it has begun operating a new generation of more advanced centrifuges. Some experts believe it could produce the material for a bomb in a matter of months; the accord had pushed that timeline back beyond one year.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who campaigned against the 2015 agreement, remains wedded to the strategy of pressure despite its manifest lack of strategic success. After Mr. Trump was defeated in last month’s election by Joe Biden, Mr. Netanyahu declared that “there must be no return to the previous nuclear agreement,” even though that is Mr. Biden’s announced plan. The Israeli leader may be hoping that the killing of Mr. Fakhrizadeh may make any resumption of the accord more difficult; if Iran retaliates, it could provide Mr. Trump with the pretext to carry out military strikes against Iran — an option he reportedly raised with advisers last month.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, whose government negotiated the nuclear deal, reportedly is seeking to restrain any retaliation for the assassination pending Mr. Biden’s inauguration. That would benefit both sides. The president-elect will hardly be a pushover for Tehran — he has linked a return to the accord to follow-on agreements on issues such as Iran’s development of long-range missiles and exports of weapons around the region. But he offers the prospect of a return to a diplomacy-focused Middle East strategy that, unlike the hard line of Mr. Trump and Mr. Netanyahu, has a record of positive results.

Read more:

Max Boot: Targeted killings won’t end the Iranian nuclear program — but could make a deal more likely

Jason Rezaian: Iran’s political establishment faces a serious test of will. So will Joe Biden.

David Ignatius: Trump remains in a battle of wills with Iran

The Post’s View: Our ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran failed — unless the goal was to help China

Jason Rezaian: Mike Pompeo’s legacy of incompetence peaked with his failed Iran policy

Jason Rezaian: One thing the virus hasn’t changed: Iran and the U.S. still hate each other