The fallout of Fakhrizadeh’s killing, while benefiting Israel, will add to the instability in West Asia

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the Iranian scientist who led Iran’s nuclear weapons programme until it was disbanded, was assassinated last week. Suspicion immediately fell on Israel, which has been widely held responsible for assassinating several Iranian nuclear scientists early last decade. Three U.S. intelligence officials have said that Mossad assassinated Fakhrizadeh. Assassinations in which Israeli hands were suspected had stopped after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) imposed strict restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programme. After Iran, in retaliation for the U.S.’s withdrawal from the agreement and re-imposition of stringent sanctions, began enriching uranium and stockpiling it beyond JCPOA limits, the strategy of targeted assassinations seems to be back.

A red flag in Israel

This strategy has assumed urgency with the election of Joe Biden in the U.S., who has expressed his desire to return to the JCPOA if Iran agrees to conform to its parameters. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif declared that Iran is willing to comply with the agreement if Mr. Biden lifts sanctions. This has raised a red flag in Israeli government circles. Israel has been the most enthusiastic cheerleader for President Donald Trump’s policy of putting “maximum pressure” on Tehran to force it to give up permanently its quest for nuclear enrichment, freeze its ballistic missile programme, and end its support to regional allies perceived as threatening American and Israeli interests.

The Benjamin Netanyahu government is apprehensive that Mr. Biden will imperil Israel’s nuclear monopoly in West Asia. It is, therefore, working towards engineering a major confrontation between the U.S. and Iran, while Mr. Trump is still in office. Mr. Trump, because of his dislike for former President Barack Obama, may be willing to order air strikes on Iranian nuclear installations in order to pre-empt the U.S.’s return to the nuclear agreement that was the foremost achievement of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy. This presumption is strengthened by reports that he was contemplating an attack on the Natanz nuclear facility in early November but was dissuaded by his senior advisers from doing so.

The assassination of Fakhrizadeh appears to be part of a larger Israeli plan in conjunction with Saudi Arabia to force the U.S. into taking military action against Iran. Mr. Netanyahu’s recent semi-clandestine trip to Saudi Arabia to meet with the Crown Prince along with the U.S. Secretary of State was aimed at cementing the anti-Iran front and putting pressure on the Trump administration to destroy Iran’s nuclear installations. Riyadh considers Tehran to be its principal adversary and the primary threat to its leadership aspirations in West Asia. According to leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, the late Saudi King Abdullah exhorted Washington in 2008 to “cut off the head of the snake”, a clear reference to Iran, by launching military strikes to destroy Tehran’s nuclear installations. An Israeli-Saudi nexus on this issue when combined with President Trump’s predilection for dramatic, even if irresponsible, actions could culminate in a major military strike on Iran before he leaves office.

A win-win situation

Fakhrizadeh’s assassination creates a win-win situation for Israel. If the Iranian government launches revenge attacks on Israeli targets or those of America’s Arab allies, Mr. Netanyahu would be able to persuade the U.S. to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. If Iran shows restraint, Israel would have shown up the Iranian regime as weak while augmenting anti-American feelings in the country that would make it difficult for the Biden administration to resume negotiations with Tehran on reviving JCPOA. Either way, the fallout of the assassination, while benefiting Israel, will add to the instability in the region. Mr. Biden will have to decide if Israel has become an albatross around the U.S.’s neck forcing it to adopt policies and undertake actions that run counter to its larger interests in West Asia.

Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University

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