The murder of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh has not gotten nearly the condemnation it deserves. While many prominent activists who lead the call for diplomacy with Iran have struck the appropriately harsh tone this action merits, too few outside of those circles are treating this with the gravity it merits.
One exception was Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) who tweeted “If the primary purpose of the killing of Mr. Fakhrizadeh was to make it harder to restart the Iran nuclear agreement, then this assassination does not make America, Israel or the world safer.”
Unsurprisingly, Joe Biden—the president-elect whose stated ambition to restart diplomacy with Iran and reenter the nuclear deal were dealt a serious by this killing—has been utterly silent on the matter. We should be concerned about that.
Biden might argue that the orderly transfer of power demands that the United States has one president at a time, despite the blatant disregard for that principle Donald Trump showed Barack Obama four years ago. The problem with that argument in this case is that Biden’s incoming administration was the target of this action.
As the New York Times recognized, the killing “threatens to cripple President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s effort to revive the Iran nuclear deal before he can even begin his diplomacy with Tehran.” The longer Biden stays silent, the more Fakhrizadeh’s murder undermines any hope for diplomacy.
That should be enough for Biden to say something about this. While it’s fair to argue that the notion of a president-elect not interfering in presidential matters until she or he takes office is worth preserving, there is a limit even in the best of times. The president-elect need not sit meekly by while the sitting president lays land mines for him on his way out.
Speaking of that New York Times article by David Sanger, it’s worth noting how the article began. “The assassination of the scientist who led Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon for the past two decades threatens to cripple President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s effort to revive the Iran nuclear deal,” Sanger wrote.
The description of Fakhrizadeh is problematic, as it implies that Iran has been pursuing a weapon for the past two decades. In fact, the United States’ own intelligence has repeatedly indicated that the opposite is the case, that Iran stopped any pursuit of nuclear weapons in 2003, and has not pursued them since. It may have been sloppy writing, something all too common at the Times these days. But it needs to be corrected.
Fakhrizadeh was the head of the weapons research program and remained a leader of Iran’s nuclear science work. That’s because he was, well, a nuclear scientist. That is neither a crime nor a legitimate reason to kill someone. Doing so is murder, plain and simple. It is, as the former head of the CIA John Brennan put it, “a criminal act and highly reckless.” He differentiated between this and targeting combatants. “These assassinations are far different than strikes against terrorist leaders & operatives of groups like al-Qaida & Islamic State, which are not sovereign states. As illegitimate combatants under international law, they can be targeted in order to stop deadly terrorist attacks.”
Brennan is mostly correct. His only mistake, as far as international law is concerned, is that whether someone is an operative of a sovereign state or not, they must be a military target or engaged in some kind of threatening activity to legitimize their assassination. Merely being, for example, a spokesperson or an accountant for a terrorist group is not sufficient. Fakhrizadeh was simply doing his job as a scientist working on nuclear science as a civilian and for civilian purposes, as the International Atomic Energy Agency has repeatedly verified. Their wide access to Iranian nuclear sites is just one valuable part of the JCPOA, and Iran has left that access intact.
Iran’s recent buildup of its nuclear stockpile and other moves to accelerate its nuclear program (which is NOT the same as a weapons program, a point U.S. media repeatedly fail to emphasize) has come entirely as a response to the United States’ decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal, to embark on a program of unilateral “maximum pressure” sanctions with no provocation from Iran, to assassinate Iranian leaders, and to work to create an anti-Iran unified bloc in the Gulf backed by the regional superpower, Israel. Iran’s purpose in the buildup is to create consequences for American actions and to ensure that they have negotiating leverage when and if the United States comes to its senses.
The Israeli elephant in the room
Israel has declined to make any statement about the murder, but virtually everyone believes they were behind it, having gotten a green light, or possibly even more encouragement, from Washington.
It may very well be that Israel employed members of the terrorist cult the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) to kill Fakhrizadeh, something they have done to murder Iranian scientists in the past. If I were to bet on the story that will eventually unfold, that would be my pick.
Fakhrizadeh’s murder came less than a week after a secret meeting in Saudi Arabia that involved Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Yossi Cohen, the head of the Mossad, among others. Saudi Arabia has denied the meeting took place, but U.S. and Israeli sources have discreetly confirmed it, as did flight tracking web sites. The timing is unlikely to be coincidental, especially since Israeli sources confirmed that Iran was a major topic of conversation at the meeting.
We should be clear in our understanding of what happened here. The incoming Biden administration is trying to get back to a deal that the majority of Americans opposed leaving, and an overwhelming majority of foreign policy experts agreed. That is a policy Biden ran for office on and won. The outgoing administration conspired with Saudi Arabia and Israel to thwart the will of the U.S., and the global, public. The result of this could be a war with devastating implications not only for the Middle East but for the entire world.
That would seem to be more of a concern than Russian bots on social media. Yet somehow, we pass that off as routine and unworthy of comment. That is unacceptable in any country that fancies itself a democracy. That doesn’t mean we should all vote on every policy issue, much less each tactical maneuver.
But it is precisely the sort of thing that demands open debate and responsiveness from elected officials. And the responsibility for making that happen is on us, the citizens, not those in Washington. This is the time to raise our voice and demand that our leaders represent the people of the United States and that our allies respect the will of the American people. If they then choose to take action on their own, they will be responsible for the response that represents the will of the American people. That’s how it’s supposed to work.
It’s not just a crime, it’s terrorism
Assal Rad, a senior research fellow at the National Iranian-American Council, tweeted, “Assassinating a scientist isn’t an act of self defense or national security. Call it what it is: *terrorism.*” She couldn’t be more right.
Consider for a moment what our response would be if a leading American or Israeli civilian nuclear scientist employed by a government that has nuclear weapons was murdered by Iranian agents or agents paid by Iran. Would we not call that an act of terrorism?
In this case, it’s even worse. The U.S. probably did let Israel run this operation, and Israel likely either got MEK terrorists to do it or, less likely, used their own operatives to carry it out. Their target was a man who was one of the leading nuclear scientists in Iran, and who, twenty years ago, did manage the program that was working on the development of nuclear weapons, although it remains uncertain whether the intention was ever to actually obtain a weapon or to merely reach breakout capacity in order to deter their more militarily powerful enemies.
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.
Killing a scientist in order to prevent an incoming administration from conducting diplomacy is the very definition of terrorism, whether carried out by a state or by a terrorist group, as Rad noted. Or, as is likely in this case, both.
As Sen. Bernie Sanders put it so well: “The assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was reckless, provocative, and illegal. As a new administration takes power, it was clearly intended to undermine U.S.-Iran diplomacy. We must not allow that to happen. Diplomacy, not murder, is the best path forward.”