By Arshiya Bhayana '22; Getty Images
On November 27, 2020, Iran’s top nuclear physicist and spearhead of its nuclear weapons program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was shot and killed in an attack in the capital city of Tehran. In Tehran, hardline protesters burned images of President Trump and President-elect Joe Biden, alongside burning the American and Israeli flag. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated Iran’s priority to be the “definitive punishment of the perpetrators and those who ordered it [the attack]”.
While it remains unclear who is responsible for the attack, Iranian officials have blamed Israel, a key US ally that has advocated for the Trump Administration’s Hardline maximum pressure campaign against the Iranian government. Although Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, has allegedly carried out several covert assassinations and sabotage operations targeting Iran’s nuclear scientists and facilities over the past decade, Israel has not yet responded to these allegations despite the public knowledge of Fakhrizadeh having been its top target for long.
Tensions between the US and Iran have escalated since 2018, after the US unilaterally withdrew from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), an agreement on the Iranian nuclear program, and imposed an arms ban and several economic sanctions,. The recent peak came in January 2020 when President Trump ordered an airstrike in Iraq to kill Qassem Soleimani, Iranian major general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and commander of its Quds Force. Iran retaliated with ballistic missile strikes on two US bases in Iraq, resulting in traumatic brain injuries to more than a hundred Americans. Fahrizadeh’s assassination could, too, result in Iran striking back against the US, Israel’s closest ally in the region, as was the case in January 2020.
Two weeks before this attack, President Trump asked his senior advisors about potential options for attacking Iran’s main nuclear site. Early in November, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) published a report stating that Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium was at 2,442.9kg, far above the 202.8 kg limit set under the 2015 nuclear deal. Experts warn that Iran’s nuclear program has enough low-enriched uranium for at least two atomic bombs if it chooses to continue down that path. However, the United State’s involvement in the attack is unclear as of now as the White House, Pentagon, and CIA officials all declined to comment on the assassination. Refusal to make a public statement on the alleged assassination could be indicative of a reluctance among the administration to further escalate tensions with Iran in the final months of President Trump’s presidency.
However, if the Trump administration wants to take radical action against Iran, it is unlikely to do so unless there is a direct provocation to trigger US military action. The tremendous challenges of striking a nuclear facility remain the same, and sources report on the high probability of Iran retaliating with missile strikes. In addition, the US has approximately 50,000 troops in the region, which is not nearly enough to carry out a sustained military campaign against Iran. While there are no plans of increasing US military personnel in the region, the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier is being moved back to the Persian Gulf which could be seen as an act of increased deterrence toward Iran.
Although President-elect Biden has announced his intentions to negotiate with Iran to return to the 2015 international accord that curbed the Iranian nuclear program, Fakhrizadeh’s assassination is likely to make a return to the deal more difficult. US policy analysts specializing in US-Iran relations have also raised concerns about the possibility of President Trump taking further action in the last weeks of his administration to further destabilize Iran and make it harder for the Biden administration to reenter the deal. This assassination is likely to empower hardline factions within Iran, and even if no military retaliation or escalation follows shortly, chances are that Fakhrizadeh’s assassination will complicate the Biden administration’s diplomatic efforts. It is plausible that Israel might have incentives to commit the attack during the Trump administration because of a different political environment that is expected to follow President-elect Biden assuming office on January 20th. In addition, the Biden administration’s approach to the Middle East may also raise a red flag for Israel, as President-elect Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, is not only a staunch supporter of the nuclear deal but also of creating more opportunities for the Palestinians.
While the loss of Iran’s top nuclear scientist could set back the program by a few years at most, it could in no way halt Iran’s nuclear program altogether since Iran’s nuclear program is advanced enough to not depend on one individual. Within 72 hours of the attack, the Iranian government approved an acceleration of its civil nuclear program, which means it will be increasing the level of uranium in contravention of the JCPOA deal which the US unilaterally withdrew from. As noted, experts warn that Iran’s nuclear program has enough low-enriched uranium for at least two atomic bombs if it chooses to continue down that path. Iran’s acceleration of its program is symbolic of a reassertion to the world that its nuclear program can survive the assassination of its top nuclear scientist.
In conclusion, while this assassination is likely to pose complications for the Biden administration, it seems unlikely that tensions between the US and Iran would majorly escalate, given that Iran avoided a major escalation following the US assassination of Soleimani earlier this year. Solemani was arguably a more important public figure in Iran, and his assassination was met with limited missile strikes on US bases in Iraq, making it unlikely that Fakhrizadeh’s assassination would ensue major escalations. Moreover, with the upcoming Iranian general elections in June 2021 and the current economic sanctions being lifted by the US reentering the deal, Iran would need to carefully weigh its options for responding to this attack.