Timing is everything: Assassination of Iran nuke chief Fakhrizadeh

©The Jerusalem Post

Iranian Revolutionary Guard members in Tehran carry the casket of Iran Revolutionary Guards Brigadier General Mohsen Ghajarian, who was killed in the northern province of Aleppo , Syria (photo credit: ATTA KENARE / AFP)

The assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh comes at a sensitive and important time. It is between the US election and the swearing in of a new president. It also comes less than a week after a reported visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Saudi Arabia. That visit was called a message to the new US administration of President-elect Joe Biden, as well as a message to Iran.
The killing of a nuclear scientist closely linked to Iran’s secretive nuclear program is an even bigger message. Iran has been humiliated by having one of is leading professors and nuclear chiefs, one whose name was well known, apparently gunned down in broad daylight on the street near Absard Iran, east of Tehran. Photos showed blood, a car with bullet holes and a second vehicle that had been blown up.
Let’s go back to 2018 when Israel’s Foreign Ministry published a speech by Prime Minister Netanyahu in which he named Fakhrizadeh. The entire quote is interesting. “There’s another document from the archive. This is following the new directive of Iran’s Minister of Defense, Mr. Shamkhani, today he’s the director of the National Security Council. Following the new directive of Iran’s Minister of Defense, the work would be split into two parts, covert and overt. A key part of the plan was to form new organizations to continue the work. This is how Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, head of Project Amad, put it. Remember that name, Fakhrizadeh. So here’s his directive, right here. And he says: “The general aim is to announce the closure of Project Amad,” but then he adds, “Special activities”—you know what that is—“Special activities will be carried out under the title of scientific know-how developments.” And in fact, this is exactly what Iran proceeded to do. It continued this work in a series of organizations over the years, and today, in 2018, this work is carried out by SPND, that’s an organization inside Iran’s Defense Ministry. And you will not be surprised to hear that SPND is led by the same person that led Project Amad, Dr. Fakhrizadeh, and also, not coincidentally, many of SPND’s key personnel worked under Fakhrizadeh on Project Amad.”
Clearly Fakhrizadeh was a key to Iran’s program and his killing shows how vulnerable that program is. Back in June and early July a series of mysterious explosions hit Iran’s missile complex at khojir and then the nuclear facility at Natanz. This harmed the centrifuges that are key to the nuclear program.
In recent weeks a number of important events have taken place. For instance Israel has hosted key delegations from the Gulf. Iran has also been implicated in planting explosives along the Golan in mid-November. Israel says it carried out airstrikes in retaliation. Then, earlier this week, reports in Syrian regime and other media claimed more airstrikes harmed pro-Iranian personnel in Syria. Reports of those airstrikes were made on November 25.
Iran is in a complex position at the moment. It has been harmed by the Trump administration’s economic sanctions. It has also made progress on its drone and ballistic missile programs in recent years. It has used those missiles in Syria and Iraq and trafficked them to Iraq. It has used drones to attack Saudi Arabia and trafficked technology to the Houthi rebels in Yemen that resulted in ballistic missile attacks on Saudi Arabia. It has moved drones to Syria. It has also tried to move air defense to Syria in 2018. Iran has tried to entrench in Syria, moving forces and weapons to Albukamal on the Iraq border and T-4 base to create a corridor of influence. It has repeatedly tried to strike at Israel from the Golan and entrenched in Damascus and its environs.
In addition Iran launched a military satellite this year and wants to launch more. It has a new train that it showed off that can move ballistic missile launchers into position. What Iran lacks is a viable nuclear weapon and a way to deliver it. As its arms embargo ends, Iran may be able to move technology that can assist it. It is also renewing work with North Korea, the US has indicated. Recent media reports also claimed the US was in the spotlight as the Trump administration ends. This means tensions could increase. However the US also wants to withdraw forces from the region. The White House sent its new acting defense secretary to the region and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was just in the region for talks with Israel, Bahrain, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and allies. The US continues to announce sanctions on Iran, pressuring the regime.
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Iran is concerned about a harsh response to the US because it doesn’t want to anger the incoming Biden administration. However others in Iran’s regime want to see a tough response to the US and also more threats to Israel. They say the US has lost and that Iran can pivot to China. Iran has vowed retaliation for the killing of Qasem Soleimani, the head of the IRGC Quds force killed by the US in January.
In this sense Iran watched as Israel and the Gulf states have made peace and is watching Washington closely. The death of its key scientist on the road to Absard, not far from the Khojir missile site, is a huge embarrassment for Iran. Some on social media compare it to the death of Soleimani. Iran retaliated for the death of Soleimani with ballistic missile strikes on US forces at Al-Asad base in Iraq. Iran also downed a civilian airliner by mistake, revealed the regime’s technological programs. Iran has advanced 3rd Khordad missile defense and recently put these missiles and other drones on a new ship it acquired. It also downed a US drone.
All this looks like complex timing for Iran. Iran must consider what to do next as some elements in the regime will demand retaliation, angry that they didn’t get to retaliate in January. In Iraq Iran has been ordering its proxies to attack US forces. However it has been cautious after the US threatened to close its embassy in September. Iran must weigh a response as it also wonders about angering the new US administration. Iran recently released an Australian academic and wants to appear more palatable to western countries. Western states are fearful of Iran but one Iranian diplomat is on trial in Belgium over alleged bombing plot. Iran considers all this as it is busy cleaning the blood off the street near Absard.
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