Iran: Tense days ahead post-assassination of nuclear scientist

December 2, 2020 10:48 AM

The killing of Mohsin Fakhrizadeh, a nuclear scientist was the second high profile assassination of a senior functionary linked to the Iranian ruling establishment, which had been preceded, in January this year by the assassination of General Qasem Suleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard while on a visit to Iraq.

Any opening up to the international community hinges on a reformed new nuclear deal with the US in the backdrop of changing political landscape in the US.

By BRIG N K Bhatia,

A top Iranian nuclear scientist closely associated with Iranian defence establishment and with a rank of Brigadier General in its Revolutionary Guard was assassinated on the outskirts of Teheran in a targeted killing last Friday. The killing of Mohsin Fakhrizadeh, a nuclear scientist was the second high profile assassination of a senior functionary linked to the Iranian ruling establishment, which had been preceded, in January this year by the assassination of General Qasem Suleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard while on a visit to Iraq. The similarity may be drawn to the manner of killings by use of aerial platforms that closely monitored the movement of Iran’s top leaders.

As per Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Mohsin Fakhrizadeh was killed in a very complicated operation using electronic equipment with no one at the scene. An input suggests that he was killed using a remotely controlled automatic machine gun, probably controlled by a satellite. Similarly, Gen Qasem Suleimani was killed using a remotely piloted drone.

Mohsin Fakrizadeh had earlier in 2008 survived an assassination attempt. However, a few of his colleagues associated with the Iranian nuclear programme were not as lucky and were assassinated in a series of car bombings that were targeted at them between 2010 and 2012. A total of four Iranian scientists had been assassinated. The killings then were attributed to Israel, similar to the current insinuations on the killing of the Fakirzade. He was thereafter provided state security and armed escorts.

Besides the killing of Iranian nuclear scientists, its nuclear facilities have been targeted through cyber network and sabotage. The use of Stuxnet and Flame malware to disable centrifuges in its nuclear plants was attributed to joint Israeli-US efforts. Similarly, explosion and fire at Natanz nuclear power plant in July this year leading to fire was attributed to Israel.

Iran’s nuclear programme has always posed challenges to peace and security in the Middle East. While Iran maintains that its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes, the western powers and more particularly the USA and Israel feel it to be a threat to the regional stability, more particularly to US-allied regimes in the region.

After prolonged discussions in 2015 Iran reached commitments to set out a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in an agreement with P5+ Germany to limit its clandestine nuclear activities and allow international inspection of its nuclear facilities in exchange for the removal of economic sanctions. Iran, in brief, agreed to reduce its uranium stockpile to just 300 Kgs and similarly drastically cut the number of centrifuges to 1,044 to be used only for peaceful purposes in fields of medicine, agriculture, industry and science. It also agreed to stop production of weapons grade plutonium or build heavy water reactors.

The nuclear deal collapsed after US President Donald Trump reimposed sanctions due to the dominant Iranian role in sectarian conflicts in the Middle East and on reports that it had clandestinely continued with its nuclear and missile programme. It reportedly resumed nuclear enrichment leading to tightening of sanctions in May 2019.

Post killing of General Qasem Solemani in January 2020 the situation in the Middle East has been fragile with Iran refusing to buckle to any pressure. To the contrary, its activities have been aggressive and inflammatory although these did not cause anticipated damage to US interests in the region.

Iran’s immediate response to the assassination of General Suleimani was the launch of ‘Operation Martyr Solemani’ on 08 January 2020 by firing ballistic missiles on two Iraqi bases – Ayn al-Asad in western Iraq and an airbase near Irbil, in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. This was followed up by rocket attacks on Camp Taji in Iraq on 11 and 15 March killing two U.S. military personnel and one British soldier besides injuring three US soldiers.

The activities of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Navy and Coast Guard also intensified in April 2020 with its personnel boarding, a ship and small naval boats carrying out high-speed manoeuvres around western ships to harass them.Another significant muscle-flexing activity of Iran was the successful launch of a reconnaissance satellite “Noor” on 22 April 2020, to show that it had not given upon its ambitions to develop ballistic and nuclear capabilities. All these activities have been conducted under the tutelage of Iranian Revolutionary Guard which has remained at forefront of Iran’s aggressive projection of its power in the Middle East.

The fallout of assassination of Mohsin Fakhrizadeh is likely to further infuriate the Iranian leadership. Iran’s capability to retaliate directly against Israel may be limited. Any action against Israel may not be immediate but Iran will certainly initiate retaliatory actions against Israel, at a time of its choosing, most probably through its Shia proxy Hezbollah from Lebanon and Syria. Such actions would only exacerbate the delicate situation for the worse.

The regional dynamics in the Middle East are undergoing major changes with Saudi led Muslim countries on way to opening up to Israel. After establishing ties with the UAE and Bahrain, Israel is on its way to find common ground with Saudi Arabia. Iran is certainly one of the factors bringing the two sides together and Iran for sure is aware of the changing equations.

Iranian leadership has been facing multiple challenges at home including wide-ranging protests against its policies and programmes leading to disgruntlement especially amongst the young and middle-aged population that has only seen a closed society, post Islamic revolution. The Iranian leadership is also struggling to contain the fallout from the devastating effect of sanctions and of the after-effects of coronavirus, but that may not be the reason enough for Iranian clergy to give up on their ambitions to further the theological agenda.

Any opening up to the international community hinges on a reformed new nuclear deal with the US in the backdrop of changing political landscape in the US. Iranian leadership will need to come out with new options to engage with the US and its allies. For that to happen it will need to move beyond a fixated mindset and reign in its proxies and hard-line Mullahs and give up on its provocative actions. But that may be hoping for too much.

In the aftermath of the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh Iran may for the time being hold its horses, only to unleash its brand of retaliatory actions, if things don’t go it’s way in any future negotiations.

(The author is an Indian Army Veteran. Views are personal)

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