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4 December 2020

Why the killing of an Iranian nuclear scientist poses a new challenge for Joe Biden

In a region awash with conflict, American and Iranian interests are likely to continue to clash.  

By Lawrence Freedman

The nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was assassinated on 27 November, has been described as the Iranian equivalent of Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the American atomic bomb. Israel never confirms its hand in operations designed to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, which have included sabotage and cyberattacks as well as assassinations, but it is widely assumed to be responsible, for example in comments made by a senior US official this past weekend (28/29 November).

The timing of the attack can also be assumed to be geared as much as to the handover of US presidential power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden on 20 January, as to the actual state of the Iranian nuclear programme. According to some reports, Trump had to be persuaded not to launch his own strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities as a dramatic finale to his presidency. In the end, his instructions to secretary of state Mike Pompeo reportedly involved squeezing Iran as aggressively as possible short of starting an actual war. 

At the very least, Trump wants to box in the president-elect. To this end, Pompeo has been busily increasing the pressure on Iran. In addition to ramping up economic sanctions on Tehran, he has been forging an anti-Iranian coalition in the Middle East; brokering agreements to normalise Israel’s diplomatic relations with Bahrain and the UAE. For the moment Saudi Arabia is not following suit but is content to meet relatively covertly with Israel.

For its part, the Iranian government led by President Hassan Rouhani is aware of the potential trap. If the Iranians start lashing out in retaliation they would give Trump an excuse for hitting them hard in return. For this reason, they will probably bide their time before any possible retaliatory action against Israeli targets. Biden has already stated his interest in establishing a new and different relationship with Tehran, including a return to the nuclear deal negotiated in 2015 under the Obama administration, known as the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). The Iranians will want to explore what that means in practice.

Under the JCPOA, Iran agreed to reduce its stock of enriched uranium and reduce by two thirds the number of its gas centrifuges. Yet the deal was criticised from the start by Israel and the Saudis, and by many in the US Congress, for making inadequate checks on the Iranian programme and government. Trump made his opposition to the JCPOA a major feature of his 2016 campaign and, although Iran remained fully compliant, in May 2018 he noisily abandoned the deal. Economic sanctions on Iran were revived and intensified. 

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All this was ostensibly intended to coerce Iran into agreeing to a better deal, although Trump’s hope that a campaign of “maximum pressure” would also break the current Iranian regime was hardly hidden. With neither objective can the campaign claim success. The Iranian economy has suffered, aggravated by the onset of Covid-19, but the country has still found ways to export its oil, largely to China, and the hardliners remain firmly in control ahead of the presidential elections scheduled for next June. Iran is also closer to becoming a nuclear power now than it was in 2018. While there is no evidence that it has resumed nuclear weapons research, and it has not walked away completely from the JCPOA, its stockpile of uranium is now 12 times larger than permitted, and has been enriched to a purity of up to 4.5 per cent, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This is higher than the 3.67 per cent permitted by the deal, although still some way from becoming weapons grade.

Biden has said that, so long as Iran returns to full compliance, the US would sign up to the deal again. He then wants a further round of negotiations to improve and extend the deal and address a wider range of political questions. 

However, while Iran’s government has indicated it would be ready to engage with the Biden administration, it also said that it will need more than the US returning to the deal; it will want sanctions removed. Here the difficulties will start, because Biden will need Senate votes to disentangle sanctions. There are some 1,000 measures in total, directed against both Iranian companies and individuals. In addition to those targeting the nuclear programme, a number are geared to human rights and terrorism.

To underscore the importance of the sanctions issue, this week the Iranian parliament, dominated by hardliners, enacted a law in response to the killing of Professor Fakhrizadeh, ordering uranium enrichment up to levels closer to weapons grade, while demanding that inspectors from the IAEA be expelled if sanctions are not lifted almost immediately after the inauguration.

There is little chance that Biden will start his presidency by rushing to accede to demands of this sort, and Rouhani will likely seek to moderate the impact of the new law. But, as always, much will depend on the attitude of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Though cautious, Khamenei tends to back the hardliners who are largely in control in Tehran. Economic distress and corruption under Rouhani have blunted the appeal of the more moderate camp. Even with more time, unless Biden can provide a significant relief from sanctions, few in Tehran would argue that it is worth trying to revive the JCPOA.

At present, there is no evident interest in Tehran in a wider political accommodation with the US. The Middle East is as ever in flux. Among Trump’s other recent moves are cuts to troop levels in Afghanistan and Iraq, which ironically, strengthens the Iranian position in both countries. Saudi Arabia is trying to resolve its long-standing feud with Qatar and its catastrophic war in Yemen. The Syrian civil war still simmers, while Lebanon shows signs of instability. The ever-neglected Palestinians have decided that they need to resume cooperation with the Israelis, and will be looking to Biden to revive the moribund peace process. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu still faces corruption charges, and possibly yet more elections. In a region full of conflict, American and Iranian interests are apt to continue to clash.

[See also: What a Biden administration means for the prospects of multilateralism]

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