Biden faces new Iran challenges after nuclear scientist killed
President-elect Joe Biden’s pledge to reengage with Tehran is facing new challenges following the assassination of a top Iranian nuclear scientist.
The killing quickly led to recriminations from Iran’s leaders and could embolden hard-liners who do not want to see the two countries rebuild their relations.
Israel has not commented on the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, known as the father of Iran’s nuclear program, but is widely suspected of having carried it out.
Biden’s allies argue the assassination was a criminal act that has recklessly raised tensions in the region and was aimed at undermining the president-elect’s goal of putting the U.S. back in the international nuclear deal with Iran, negotiated by the Obama administration and fiercely opposed by Israel and the Trump administration.
“This was a criminal act & highly reckless,” John Brennan, who served as CIA director under former President Obama, wrote on Twitter. “It risks lethal retaliation & a new round of regional conflict. Iranian leaders would be wise to wait for the return of responsible American leadership on the global stage & to resist the urge to respond against perceived culprits.”
Fakhrizadeh was killed Friday in an ambush on the outskirts of Tehran. At Fakhrizadeh’s funeral on Monday, a top Iranian official accused Israel of using “electronic devices” to remotely kill him.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu previously singled out Fakhrizadeh for his role in Iran’s nuclear program, warning the world to “remember that name” during a 2018 speech revealing an archive of stolen Iranian nuclear plans.
Eliminating Fakhrizadeh is unlikely to disrupt the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions, experts argue.
But the attack is testing Tehran’s patience in preserving a path to negotiations with the Biden administration and the former vice president’s push to bring the U.S. back to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the official name for the 2015 nuclear deal.
“The JCPOA was the real target, [with] Dr. Fakhrizadeh just a collateral, and probably not the last until the moment Biden is sworn into office,” said Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington who recently published a book on political succession in Iran.
“This said, I am somewhat impressed by the acumen of the political leadership in Tehran: The Islamic Republic has hitherto practiced strategic patience in response to Israel’s attempts at luring it into a direct confrontation, and I’m not expecting change in that behavior in the course of the next couple of weeks. This is good news for the Biden administration and the prospects for U.S.-Iran negotiations,” he added.
Biden and his advisers have said he is ready to rejoin the nuclear deal if Iran, which started breaking key limits of the agreement after Trump reimposed harsh sanctions, returns to compliance.
“If Iran is prepared to return to compliance with the Iran nuclear deal, what’s called the JCPOA, then the United States is prepared to return to compliance with its obligations under the Iran nuclear deal, and then we would work intensively on follow-on agreements to address a range of different issues related to Iran’s nuclear program, including timelines, and including other questions that were not within the remit of the original JCPOA,” Jake Sullivan, whom Biden has tapped to be his national security adviser, said last week at a virtual University of Minnesota event.
Several prominent progressive Democrats have raised concerns the assassination was meant to derail any forthcoming diplomatic efforts from the Biden administration.
“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,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote on Twitter.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) tweeted that “diplomacy, not murder, is the best path forward,” while Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) warned on Twitter that “we cannot let anyone drag us into a new war.”
“This much is clear: the proven way to restrain Iran’s nuclear program is through relentless diplomacy,” Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), who is running to chair the House Foreign Relations Committee, said in his own tweet. “If the cynical goal of this killing is to hinder a return to the Iran deal, Americans and our allies are less safe.”
Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, said Democrats are more united behind Biden’s push to reenter the nuclear deal despite opposition within the party in 2015 and that Republicans quietly support the deal on substance but are unwilling to break with the Trump administration’s hard-line policy.
“I think what has happened since 2015 is that Democrats, the ones who were skeptical about it, many of them have seen that the deal actually worked,” he said.
“Conversations I’ve had with Republicans … it’s clear they’re not really opposed to it because of its substance, it’s more about politics,” Parsi said. “It’s no longer, ‘Oh, you’re pro-Obama or pro-Democrats.’ If you’re in favor of the deal, you’re anti-Trump.”
Fakhrizadeh’s assassination has also sparked pushback from Gulf nations allied with Israel that have spoken out against Biden’s promise to negotiate with Tehran.
The United Arab Emirates on Monday condemned the assassination as “heinous,” and Bahrain called for “maximum restraint” to reduce tensions and avoid a larger-scale conflict. Both countries signed a normalization agreement with Israel earlier this year.
U.S. allies in Europe also expressed concerns about deteriorating relations, with the European Union saying in a statement Saturday that Fakhrizadeh’s assassination was a “criminal act” that ran counter to respect for human rights and urging “maximum restraint” to avoid further escalating tensions.
Iran is set to meet with JCPOA-participating countries on Dec. 16 in Vienna, including representatives from the European Union, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom.
Fakhrizadeh’s death comes just shy of a year after a U.S. drone strike killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, an event that brought Washington and Tehran to the brink of war.
Iran, which has already pledged further retaliation for the Soleimani killing, is vowing a response to Fakhrizadeh’s death, with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei calling for “definitive punishment of the perpetrators and those who ordered it.”
President Hassan Rouhani said a response will come in a “proper time.”
Retired Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called Fakhrizadeh’s assassination “really a significant event” similar to Soleimani’s.
“I think the assassination makes it much more challenging … in terms of where President-elect Biden wants to go in terms of renegotiating or reentering into the nuclear deal,” Mullen said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“I’m hopeful that President-elect Biden can actually reach in and calm the waters, but I think this heightens tension significantly.”