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Israel Tries to Kill the Nuclear Deal

Through their efforts to blow up the nuclear deal, Iran hawks in the U.S. and Israel have unwittingly demonstrated the value of keeping it intact.

TEHRAN, IRAN - NOVEMBER 30: 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)

Last Friday Iran’s leading nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was assassinated in a coordinated terrorist attack outside of Tehran. The Iranian government has publicly blamed Israel for the attack, and according to early reports Israeli involvement has been confirmed by U.S. and other intelligence officials. Israel sponsored a number of similar assassinations of lower-profile scientists in the early 2010s, and their government is a loud opponent of U.S. reentry into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The purpose of murdering Fakhrizadeh seems to have been to trigger a conflict that would kill the JCPOA, but the murderers also reminded us why it is so important that their efforts fail.

While Khamenei and the Iranian president have both vowed revenge for Fakhrizadeh’s killing, the Iranian government has an incentive to bide its time and refrain from any immediate response to the provocation. The murder nonetheless complicates the incoming Biden administration’s task of rejoining the nuclear deal. It will strengthen the hand of hard-liners inside Iran, and it will tend to make Iranians of all stripes less willing to compromise on issues related to national security. It shows the lengths to which Israel may go to disrupt and undermine the nuclear deal, and it presages the intense opposition that Biden will face from reckless regional clients in trying to keep the deal alive.

The U.S. and Iran already seemed to be moving towards the brink of war once again in recent weeks, and the assassination will only increase tensions as the year draws to a close. The administration seems likely to seize on any Iranian response to the Israeli attack as a pretext for military action, so Iran will presumably exercise restraint for the time being. Far from being the fanatical “martyr-state” that many Iran hawks suppose it to be, the Iranian government is interested above all in self-preservation and defending against external threats, but sooner or later U.S. and Israeli provocations will cause them to retaliate.

This ugly incident should remind us just how absurd the obsession with Iran’s nuclear program really is. Israel is an undeclared nuclear weapons state with an estimated two hundred warheads in its arsenal, and the U.S. has one of the two largest nuclear arsenals in the world. By contrast, Iran hasn’t had anything like a nuclear weapons program in 17 years, and it has never possessed nuclear weapons. The role that Fakhrizadeh had in that now-defunct program is long in the past. Israel killed this man for things he did a generation ago that cannot possibly threaten anyone today. Despite what you may have heard from error-riddled Western news coverage over the last week, Fakhrizadeh was not the “father of the Iranian bomb” because no such thing has ever existed.

Mitchell Plitnick summed it up very well in a recent article:

Either way, the program was abandoned seventeen years ago, and every scrap of intelligence, including the most intrusive monitoring program by far that any country has ever undergone says that Iran is not working on a nuclear weapon and that their exceeding the limits of the JCPOA is merely a response to the U.S. breaking its word.

Iran has made the political choice not to pursue nuclear weapons because its leadership has concluded that the price of obtaining them is not worth paying, but with each new attack their thinking could begin to change. In addition to being illegal and outrageous, murdering Iranian scientists makes acquiring a nuclear deterrent more appealing to their leaders rather than less. Contrary to disingenuous Iran hawks like Max Boot, killing Fakhrizadeh has hurt the cause of diplomacy with Iran just as it was meant to. We need only imagine how our government would respond if the positions were reversed and Iranian agents murdered an American or Israeli official. Boot would not be suggesting that this paves the way to new negotiations. He would be predictably agitating for war.

The assassination was an outrageous and unjustified attack, and the Israeli government that carried it out is guilty of sponsoring terrorism. There can be no excuse for attacks like this no matter who the target is, and it ought to be just as widely condemned as any other attack would be.

We are used to having every aggressive Israeli action outside Israeli borders relabeled as “self-defense,” but there is no whitewashing this one. A U.S. client state carried out a heinous attack on another country’s soil for the purpose of undermining the foreign policy of the next American administration at the risk of sparking a regional conflagration. There have to be consequences for that behavior, or there will be even more of it in the years to come. The lack of any public response from the Biden camp so far has not been encouraging.

The backlash against the attack is causing more damage to the nuclear deal. The Majlis has already unanimously called for suspending implementation of the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, which it had been following up until now.

The parliament doesn’t make the final decision on these matters, but this reflects how angry many Iranians are about this latest attack.

Another consequence of the assassination may be to boost the political fortunes of a hard-line candidate in the upcoming Iranian presidential election. Hard-liners have already benefited enormously from the U.S. decision to renege on the nuclear deal and the economic war on Iran that has followed. Iranian opponents of the nuclear deal always said that the U.S. couldn’t be trusted and that their government had given up too much, and U.S. actions over the last two and a half years have vindicated their complaints. The Trump administration has made it much more difficult politically for any Iranian leader to support engagement with the U.S., and this latest attack is bound to help those elements inside Iran that prefer resistance and hostility.

Assuming that the Iranian government doesn’t retaliate in the near term, the election of a hard-line president next summer could portend a change in how Iran responds to these provocations. If the Supreme Leader’s adviser, Hossein Dehghan, were to run and win the election, for example, that would also signal a shift away from a pro-engagement policy. That wouldn’t necessarily doom the nuclear deal, but it would likely mean that there would be no further negotiations on other issues.

At the same time, this attack shows that there is a clear choice for Washington on Iran policy. Either the U.S. can press ahead with reentry into the JCPOA and choose a policy of deescalation with Iran, or American hawks and U.S. clients in the region will keep pushing for confrontation and conflict until they eventually get the war they want. Through their relentless efforts to blow up the nuclear deal, Iran hawks in the U.S. and Israel have unwittingly demonstrated the value of keeping the agreement intact.

Beyond the main purpose of keeping Iran’s nuclear program peaceful, the JCPOA reduced tensions between the U.S. and Iran and made a war between our governments much less likely. Since the U.S. exited the agreement in 2018, there have been repeated war scares, and until the U.S. rejoins there will likely be more. The nuclear deal resolved the main disputed issue between the U.S. and Iran, and that is why Iran hawks have fought so hard for the last five years to kill it. It would be a tragic waste if they were allowed to succeed just as a new administration is on the verge of rejoining the agreement.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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