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The assassination of top Iranian nuclear scientist raises the stakes for Biden

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We don’t know who exactly gunned down a prominent Iranian nuclear scientist on Friday. But there’s already an expert consensus — confirmed by a senior U.S. official to my colleagues — that Israel was behind the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, slain in a roadside ambush outside the Iranian capital Tehran. If true, it adds to a long record of alleged clandestine Israeli activity within Iran, including previous assassinations and recent sabotage attempts on the country’s nuclear program.

Iranian authorities view Fakhrizadeh’s killing as an act of terrorism and have vowed retaliation at the “right time,” potentially through proxies elsewhere in the Middle East. A statement from the European Union labeled the incident a “criminal act” and urged all parties in the region to “exercise maximum restraint in order to avoid escalation which cannot be in anyone’s interest.” The Trump administration and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remained circumspect in their silence through the weekend.

“Fakhrizadeh was widely regarded as the brains behind Iran’s nuclear program, including Tehran’s clandestine efforts to develop a nuclear bomb in the early 2000s,” my colleagues reported. “The physics professor, believed to be about 60 years old, has been identified by intelligence officials as the head of the Amad Plan, the secret nuclear weapons research program that sought to develop as many as six nuclear bombs before Iranian leaders ordered a halt to the program in 2003.”

That Israel would want to target such an official is not surprising. Nor is — as critics of both Trump and Netanyahu’s hawkish approach to Iran quickly noted — the timing of this strike. The incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden hopes to restore the framework of the nuclear deal that Trump violated when he imposed sweeping sanctions on Iran, which in turn compelled the Iranian regime to resume nuclear activities that had been curtailed under the terms of the deal.

Trump and his allies have made plain their desire to inflict greater pain on Iran in the final weeks of the presidency. And they seem keen to test Iran’s apparent willingness to soak up such targeted attacks while they wait for the winds to change in Washington. “The operation reflects thinking of those in the Netanyahu government — and/or the Trump administration — who see these next few weeks as their last chance to make relations with Iran as bad as possible, in an effort to spoil the Biden administration’s efforts to return to diplomacy with Tehran,” said Paul Pillar, a former CIA official and a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies, to my colleagues.

Over the weekend, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said his government would wait out Trump’s waning “maximum pressure” campaign, which was backed by Israel and a handful of Arab monarchies that found common cause over their antipathy to the Iranian regime. “Their pressure era is coming to an end and the global conditions are changing,” Rouhani said.

But within Iran, hard-line pressure is also mounting. Fakhrizadeh’s assassination comes in a year that began with the United States killing Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, a leading Iranian commander, and then saw a series of unexplained explosions at sensitive Iranian sites, including a centrifuge research and development center at Natanz. The strikes have exposed the failures of Iran’s security apparatus and weakness at the heart of the regime.

“For Iran’s adversaries to pull off so many operations so quickly means there is a significant scale of local recruitment and management of cutouts,” wrote Kamran Bokhari of the Center for Global Policy. “In many ways growing public anger against the regime in the last decade or so — including last year’s protests and brutal crackdown — has provided a recruitment-rich environment for foreign intelligence services.”

That sense of humiliation and apprehension in Tehran may complicate Biden’s efforts to calm tensions. In remarks delivered last week, Jake Sullivan, Biden’s designated national security adviser and a former Obama-era negotiator with Iran, said the path forward was “really up to Iran” and seemed to suggest that Tehran may have to take the first concrete step. “If Iran returns to compliance, for its obligations that it has been violating, and is prepared to advance good-faith negotiations on these follow-on agreements,” then a Biden administration would follow suit, Sullivan said.

Both in Washington and Tehran, the room for maneuver won’t be particularly great. In that context, experts in Europe see an opportunity — perhaps, even a responsibility — to help shepherd the rapprochement along. “European countries must move fast to contain Iran’s expanding nuclear program, and to urge the incoming Biden administration to take advantage of the political momentum following his inauguration to actively engage Iran and reverse the current dangerous escalatory trajectory,” wrote a group of senior former European diplomats in an open letter shown to Today’s WorldView ahead of its Monday publication by the European Council on Foreign Relations.

The letter outlined a number of ambitious steps that Britain, France and Germany — the “E3” countries directly involved in the brokering of the nuclear deal with Iran — ought to take in the coming weeks. That involves urging the incoming Biden administration to formally announce its intent to return to the deal, collaborating with the incoming administration on a wider road map for “regional de-escalation” that also includes Iran’s adversaries like Israel and Saudi Arabia, and building up a direct European channel to Iran in order to set out a realistic path for diplomacy.

“This process should involve an extensive discussion with Iran on technical steps to roll back its nuclear program, the realistic contours of sanctions relief under a Biden administration, and European measures to support Iran’s economy,” stated the letter, whose signatories include former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt, former German ambassador to the United States Wolfgang Ischinger and former NATO secretary general Javier Solana.

Without such steps, the coming weeks could prove dangerous. The killing of Fakhrizadeh “should be a wake up call for Europe and the incoming administration,” Ellie Geranmayeh, senior fellow at ECFR, told Today’s WorldView. “The longer Iran continues to expand its nuclear program absent political talks, the more likely such covert operations will take place and the higher the risk of broader regional military escalation.”

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