War Stories

Biden’s Middle East Plans Just Got a Lot More Complicated

After the assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, it’s going to be much harder to return to diplomacy.

Uniformed soldiers kneel on the carpet around a coffin draped with an Iranian flag and a picture of Fakhrizadeh.
A burial ceremony for nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh at Imamzadeh Saleh shrine in northern Tehran, Iran, on Monday. Hamed Malekpour/Tasnim News/AFP via Getty Images

The assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist probably won’t trigger a war, but it will make it harder for President-elect Joe Biden to fashion some sort of peace in the region—and that may have been the intent.

Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, is believed to have planned the attack, though the Trump administration almost certainly would have given its consent. The murder reportedly involved 12 gunmen, all of whom got away. Whatever the motive, the tactic is nothing new. From 2010 to 2012, Mossad killed four Iranian nuclear scientists and wounded another; as early as 2007, an Iranian scientist was poisoned, with Mossad suspected as the culprit.

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The killings can be seen as part of a broad campaign to impede Iran’s fast-developing nuclear program, a campaign that included the U.S.-Israeli cyberoffensive operation known as Stuxnet, which sabotaged thousands of gas centrifuges, vital for enriching uranium, at Iran’s Natanz reactor. In 2013, President Barack Obama and the leaders of five other nations began negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program, which led to the signing of an accord in July 2015. Between the end of Stuxnet and the start of the Iranian nuclear deal, no Iranian scientists were killed.

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President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, smacked Iran with economic sanctions (which had been lifted as part of the deal), and, soon after, imposed “secondary sanctions” on all other countries—including the signatories of the nuclear deal—that continued doing business with the Islamic Republic. He did this even though international inspectors attested several times that Iran had dismantled much of its nuclear program, as required by the accord. Over the next year, Iran tried to strike separate financial arrangements with the European Union, to no avail. So—in accordance with paragraph 36 of the nuclear deal, which states that one signatory would have “grounds to cease performing its commitments” if other signatories were not meeting theirs—Iran broke out of the deal as well, enriching far more uranium than its terms allowed.

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In response, Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stepped up their rhetoric calling essentially for regime change in Iran. In mid-November, shortly after it became clear that he’d lost his bid for reelection, Trump asked his advisers whether it would be possible to launch an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities in his final weeks as president. All of them—including Pompeo, his national security adviser, his newly appointed acting defense secretary, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—advised against such a move, saying it could trigger a wider war.

Did Trump then consult with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his friend and most loyal ally, who has been calling for an attack on Iran ever since George W. Bush was president? Did Netanyahu then set in motion the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, often identified as the leader of Iran’s attempts—covert and otherwise—to build an A-bomb? Or did the two impulses—Trump’s to do something about Iran before he leaves office, Netanyahu’s (and Mossad’s) to kill Fakhrizadeh if a chance arose—merely coincide?

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Either way, the two have converged to make it much harder—it would already have been difficult—for Biden to pursue a diplomatic solution to the impending crisis. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani placed a huge bet on reaching out to the West when he set out to negotiate the original nuclear deal—and he was dealt a huge setback when Trump pulled out of it. Iran’s hard-line factions, led by the Revolutionary Guard, the elite military force, had always opposed the deal—and Trump’s action boosted their strength.

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Iran is holding presidential elections in June, and if relations with the West haven’t warmed by then, a hard-liner is likely to win. On Friday, the parliament unanimously expressed a desire to withdraw from the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which allows international inspectors to verify that signatories are in compliance with the treaty’s ban on developing nuclear weapons.

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The decision to withdraw, if it comes, would be made by Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, who wields as much power as his title implies, and who has always been at least ambivalent about negotiating with American “devils.” In a statement read aloud at Fakhrizadeh’s funeral, Khamenei said, “Some say through dialogue and negotiations, actions can be taken in order to put an end to such hostility. This is not possible, because our enemies oppose the nature of the Islamic Republic. … They will never put an end to their hostilities toward us.”

Iranian politicians are arguing over what they should do right now. The more hard-line factions, including military commanders, demand retaliation, to show foreign enemies that they can’t get away with such brazen violations of Iranian sovereignty. The more pragmatic factions argue that striking back would only play into Trump’s and Netanyahu’s hands. Retaliation would spark counterretaliation, and, in a rising spiral of escalation, Iran would lose. Better, the pragmatists argue, to hold fire and hope to get some kind of deal after Biden takes office.

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Biden has said he will push early in his presidency to restart the nuclear deal, offering to lift the sanctions if Iran scales back its uranium enrichment so that it is once again in compliance. Rouhani and other pragmatic Iranians want to start over again too; for one thing, the renewed and tightened sanctions are wrecking their economy. But the inflamed distrust between the two countries—beginning with Trump’s withdrawal, intensifying with his assassination in January of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, and now continuing with the killing of Fakhrizadeh—might make a simple return to some version of normalcy impossible politically. At the very least, many Iranian officials would want the U.S. to lift sanctions before they surrender enriched uranium; some are demanding that the U.S. compensate for revenue lost during the time of Trump’s sanctions. Biden, in turn, will find it difficult to comply with either demand, given the hostility of congressional Republicans (and some Democrats). Since the Iran nuclear deal was a multinational accord, not a treaty, it does not require Senate ratification; but Congress can impose conditions that limit or block what Biden can do.

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Whatever happens, Netanyahu has achieved at least a short-term victory with this assassination. If the act winds up provoking Iran into striking back, then Israel might strike back harder, perhaps along with the U.S. and maybe some of its new Sunni Arab allies (an alliance forged mainly on their common antipathy to Shiite-led Iran). And whether or not Iran strikes back, Biden will have a hard time doing what Netanyahu has most feared he might do: return to the Iran nuclear deal as originally signed.

Biden wants to downgrade the Middle East as an object of his attention. One of his advisers told me in mid-November that the region “ranks a distant fourth” on the list of security priorities—“after Asia, Europe, and the Western Hemisphere.” Twelve years ago, as Barack Obama prepared to take the helm, he too had hopes of disentangling American blood and fortune from the region’s ancient, endless battles—only to be pulled back. Biden will have to work hard to resist the same magnetic force.

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