Archive for December 1, 2020

Killing scientist batters, but doesn’t shatter, Biden plans to reenter nuke deal

December 1, 2020

Fakhrizadeh assassination adds to Tehran’s growing list of grievances and could force it to retaliate; still, it doesn’t diminish Iran’s desire to return to a sanction-ending deal

Students of Iran's Basij paramilitary force burn posters depicting US President Donald Trump (top) and President-elect Joe Biden, during a rally in front of the foreign ministry in Tehran, on November 28, 2020, to protest the killing of prominent nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh a day earlier near the capital. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

By JACOB MAGIDToday, 5:00 am  1Students of Iran’s Basij paramilitary force burn posters depicting US President Donald Trump (top) and President-elect Joe Biden, during a rally in front of the foreign ministry in Tehran, on November 28, 2020, to protest the killing of prominent nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh a day earlier near the capital. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

NEW YORK — Within hours of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh’s assassination on Friday, social media accounts affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps began posting propaganda images depicting the slain nuclear scientist alongside former IRGC commander Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi comrade Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who were killed in a similar targeted attack.

The message coming from the highest levels of the Islamic Republic was that Iran planned not only to avenge the death of the most recent “martyr,” but the killings of Soleimani and al-Muhandis as well.

The operation that took out Fakhrizadeh has been widely attributed to Israel, whereas the January drone strike on Soleimani and al-Muhandis was carried out by the US. To Tehran though, they are part of the same growing list of grievances that many analysts speculate will make President-elect Joe Biden’s plans to re-enter the Iran nuclear accord a much more difficult task.

Several regional experts who spoke with The Times of Israel Monday acknowledged the degree to which Fakhrizadeh’s killing complicates matters for the incoming Biden administration, yet they also argued that Iran’s interest in reaching an agreement to ease crippling American sanctions remains undiminished.

But while the raft of Trump-imposed sanctions could be justified as leverage to be exploited by Biden to entice Tehran back to the negotiating table, targeted killings cannot be placed in the same basket. The Washington-based analysts who spoke to The Times of Israel argued that rather than coaxing a weakened regime into reluctantly making its way to the negotiating table, such strikes are more likely to convince Iran to rebuff talks altogether — which may have been the main aim of the assassination.

The ‘real target’ of the assassination

The killing of Fakhrizadeh, the scientist that Israel and the US accused of heading Iran’s rogue nuclear weapons program, was part of an effort to “salt the field for Biden and lock the Iranians into a position of intransigence,” argued Hussein Ibish of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (AGSIW).

The Middle East analyst maintained that even before the military-style ambush on the outskirts of Tehran, efforts by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani were vulnerable to the “willingness and ability of hardliners [in the Islamic Republic] to agitate against any resumed dialogue with Washington.”

“The risk any Iranian leaders will be taking in reengaging with the US has [now] greatly increased,” Ibish said.

AGSIW Iran expert Ali Alfoneh went further, arguing that the “nuclear deal was Israel’s real target in the latest assassination.” Jerusalem has not commented on Fakhrizadeh’s killing, but three Western intelligence officials told The New York Times last week that the Jewish state was responsible.Members of Iranian forces pray around the coffin of slain nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh during the burial ceremony at Imamzadeh Saleh shrine in northern Tehran, on November 30, 2020. (HAMED MALEKPOUR / TASNIM NEWS / AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had warned about the threat posed by Fakhrizadeh as early as 2018 and just days ago cautioned against Biden’s plans to re-enter the nuclear accord officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Alfoneh said that despite the attempt by perpetrators of the Friday strike to “lure” Iran into direct confrontation, he expected Tehran to stick with its practice of “strategic patience” in deciding when to respond to such attacks.

“This is good news for the Biden administration and the prospects for US-Iran negotiations,” he added, while warning that “strategic patience comes at a domestic price, as the Iranian public questions the abilities of the regime’s security services” to protect its most senior officials.

Sanctions relief vs. national honor

Brookings Institute Iran expert Suzanne Maloney appeared less optimistic, saying that Fakhrizadeh’s killing shifted the sides “back into escalation mode.”

“I’m less concerned about the [assassination’s] fallout for the nuclear deal,” she said. “What I am concerned about is how Iran will play its cards throughout the region and how this will impact Israeli and US security.”

However, Maloney argued that “anxiety over prospects of diplomacy is overstated.”A photo released by the semi-official Fars News Agency shows the scene where Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed in Absard, a small city just east of the capital, Tehran, Iran, Friday, Nov. 27, 2020 (Fars News Agency via AP); insert: Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in an undated photo (Courtesy)

What drove Iran toward negotiations with the Obama administration that led to the 2015 agreement was “a fundamental need to re-access the international financial system,” Maloney maintained, asserting that that need remains as crucial as ever.

She acknowledged that Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear program and regional hegemony are “inherently connected,” but argued that Tehran won’t “retaliate to the latest killing by withholding their willingness to talk with US about re-entry into the nuclear deal. They are going to retaliate in the region though.”

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Kate Bauer was not as convinced of the certainty of an Iranian retaliation, be it by slamming the door on the possibility for talks with the Biden administration or by combating US or Israeli interests in the region.

She said Iran is not interested in “flipping the narrative” that has seen European sympathies for Tehran grow amid the Trump administration’s snapback of sanctions against the Islamic Republic following Washington’s 2018 withdrawal from the internationally-backed JCPOA.Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands in front of a picture of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who he named as the head of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, April 30, 2018 (YouTube screenshot)

“There are reasons you can use to argue that Iran will likely to respond, but they probably understand that doing so would put at risk the opportunity to receive relief, which is what they need,” Bauer said, while acknowledging that her stance was reliant on a bit of “wishful thinking.”

Regardless, she maintained that the strike complicates things for Biden, who would have had a hard time returning to the Iran deal even before Fakhrizadeh’s killing.

While Biden has talked about re-entering the JCPOA only after Iran begins complying with the terms of the accord, Tehran has held that it wants to see sanctions relief upfront. Moreover, the president-elect’s aides have said an American re-entry into the deal will require a commitment from Iran to enter follow-up negotiations that will cover non-nuclear issues — a demand that even so-called moderates in the Islamic Republic will have a hard time accepting given that parliamentary elections are just months away.

Leverage or sabotage?

In a January address days after Soleimani’s killing, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the strike as part of a larger plan to “re-establish deterrence” against Iran along with Washington’s sweeping sanctions regime.

Some backers of the administration’s “maximum pressure” policy toward Iran have made the same argument in the aftermath of the Fakhrizadeh assassination, arguing that like sanctions, it could be used as leverage by the Biden administration, which will have an easier time negotiating with a weakened and embarrassed Tehran.Iran’s Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi pays his respect to the body of slain scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh among his family, in Tehran, Iran, November 28, 2020. (Mizan News Agency via AP)

But AGSIW’s Ibish argued that the two policies cannot be conflated. “Sanctions are actions that have consequences for an entire society and are ongoing pressure points that can be eased or intensified, like a valve,” he said.

“The killing of a one man — even if he was engaged in nefarious activity — is a different matter because once it’s done it’s done.”

“The sanctions are useable as leverage, [Fakhrizadeh’s killing] is sabotage,” Ibish maintained.

He argued that inside the Iranian regime, it is possible to have “rational conversations” with officials regarding sanctions. “But assassinating senior officials puts them in vengeance [mode] where there’s nothing that can be accomplished. It becomes about pride and honor… which aren’t natural issues to be negotiated.”

Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander reported killed in drone strike

December 1, 2020

Iraqi security forces and local militias sources say Muslim Shahdan and three others died when their vehicle, carrying weapons, was hit just inside Syria after crossing from Iraq

Iran's Revolutionary Guard troops march in a military parade marking the 36th anniversary of Iraq's 1980 invasion of Iran, in front of the shrine of late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, just outside Tehran, Iran, September 21, 2016. (AP Photo/ Ebrahim Noroozi, File)

By TOI STAFFToday, 12:24 am  0Iran’s Revolutionary Guard troops march in a military parade marking the 36th anniversary of Iraq’s 1980 invasion of Iran, in front of the shrine of late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, just outside Tehran, Iran, September 21, 2016. (AP Photo/ Ebrahim Noroozi, File)

A senior commander in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard was killed in an apparent drone strike along the Syrian-Iraqi border, according to widely circulated reports in Arabic-language media Monday.

Iraqi security sources told Saudi-based al-Arabiya News that a drone killed Muslim Shahdan, a senior commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, in a targeted strike on his car.

Other sources in the Iraqi security services told Lebanese-based al-Hadath that three of his companions perished with him.

The reports did not say who was behind the strike, which reportedly happened early Sunday or late Saturday.

It was the latest in a rapid escalation in military action over the past few weeks that have seen a top Iranian nuclear scientist assassinated and unconfirmed reports of air strikes that have killed pro-Iranian fighters or Iranian troops in Syria. The attacks have all been attributed to Israel.

Two Iraqi security officials separately said that Shahdan’s vehicle was carrying weapons and was hit shortly after it crossed the border from Iraq into Syria, Reuters reported.

Israel and the US have accused Iran and its proxies of attempting to smuggle weapons via Iraq to Syria and Lebanon to be used against the Jewish state.

On Sunday, IDF chief Aviv Kohavi said that Israel would not let up its campaign aimed at keeping Iran-backed fighters from gaining a foothold in Syria.

The campaign has included thousands of airstrikes on targets linked to Iran and alleged weapons convoys, according to reports and accounts from officials speaking anonymously.

However, alleged Israeli strikes on the Syria-Iraq border region are more rare.

Last week, Iran warned that it would bring an end to what it called Israel’s practice of “hit and run” strikes in Syria.

Tehran made the threat following a major Israeli assault in response to what Jerusalem said was a failed Iranian explosives attack on the Golan Heights.

Shahdan’s reported assassination comes days after the killing of prominent Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsin Fakhrizadeh, in an ambush on his convoy outside Tehran on Friday. Israel has been widely reported to be the perpetrator of the targeted killing, although Jerusalem has stayed mum on the issue.

Fakhrizadeh’s death has put Israel and Jewish institutions around the world on high alert, as Iran has publicly vowed revenge and repeatedly claimed Israel stands behind the assassination.

In January, a US drone strike killed senior Revolutionary Guards commander Qassem Soleimani. Iran responded by firing missiles at US bases in Iraqi that caused dozens of injuries.

Iran MPs advance bill to stop UN nuclear inspections, step up enrichment

December 1, 2020

Proposal, days after top nuclear scientist was assassinated, requires several more votes to become law; lawmakers chant ‘Death to Israel’ during session

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, right, welcomes Director General of International Atomic Energy Agency Rafael Mariano Grossi, for their meeting in Tehran, Iran, August 26, 2020. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

By AP and TOI STAFFToday, 11:38 am  0Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, right, welcomes Director General of International Atomic Energy Agency Rafael Mariano Grossi, for their meeting in Tehran, Iran, August 26, 2020. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran’s parliament on Tuesday advanced a bill that would end UN inspections of its nuclear facilities and require the government to boost its uranium enrichment if European signatories to the 2015 nuclear deal do not provide relief from oil and banking sanctions.

The vote to debate the bill, which would need to pass through several other stages before becoming law, was a show of defiance after the killing of the alleged mastermind of Iran’s military nuclear program over the weekend.

The official IRNA news agency said 251 lawmakers in the 290-seat chamber voted in favor, after which many began chanting “Death to America!” and “Death to Israel!”

The bill would give European countries three months to ease sanctions on Iran’s key oil and gas sector, and to restore its access to the international banking system. The US imposed crippling sanctions on Iran after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear agreement, triggering a series of escalations between the two sides.

The bill would have authorities resume enriching uranium to 20 percent, which is below the threshold needed for nuclear weapons but higher than that required for civilian applications. It would also commission new centrifuges at nuclear facilities at Natanz and the underground Fordo site.This photo released by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran on November 5, 2019, shows centrifuge machines at Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

The bill would require another parliamentary vote to pass, as well as approval by the Guardian Council, a constitutional watchdog.

The bill was first tabled in parliament in August but gained new momentum after the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, seen by Israel as the “father” of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

Fakhrizadeh died Friday after his car and bodyguards were targeted in a bomb and gun attack on a major road outside Tehran, heightening tensions once more between the Islamic Republic and its foes.Military personnel stand near the flag-draped coffin of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a nuclear scientist who was killed on Friday, during a funeral ceremony in Tehran, Iran, November 30, 2020. (Iranian Defense Ministry via AP)

Israel says Iran maintains the ambition of developing nuclear weapons, pointing to Tehran’s ballistic missile program and research into other technologies. Iran long has maintained that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, but has repeatedly threatened to annihilate Israel.

Iran has blamed Fakhrizadeh’s killing on Israel, which has long taken covert action against Tehran and its proxies in the region. Israel has refused to comment on the assassination, but an unnamed Israeli source told the New York Times that it had been involved.

Some Iranian officials have suggested that the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has been regularly inspecting Iran’s nuclear facilities in recent years as part of the 2015 agreement, may have been a source of intelligence for Fakhrizadeh’s killers.

Iran began publicly exceeding uranium enrichment levels set by the nuclear agreement after the US restored sanctions. It currently enriches a growing uranium stockpile up to 4.5% purity.

That’s still far below weapons-grade levels of 90%, though experts warn Iran now has enough low-enriched uranium to reprocess into fuel for at least two atomic bombs if it chose to pursue them.