Why the assassination of Fakhrizadeh is about much more than Biden.

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What would Iran stand to gain by taking actions against the US at this time, or turning a cold shoulder to Biden, especially since this did not take place under his watch?

DEMOCRATIC US presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks during a campaign stop in Detroit, Michigan, Monday. (photo credit: BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS)

DEMOCRATIC US presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks during a campaign stop in Detroit, Michigan, Monday.

(photo credit: BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS)

Friday’s assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh led to predictable hand-wringing from Obama administration alumni and their cheerleaders who midwifed the Iranian nuclear deal in 2015.

Former CIA head John Brenner was furious: “This was a criminal act & highly reckless,” he tweeted. “Such an act of state-sponsored terrorism would be a flagrant violation of international law & encourage more governments to carry out lethal attacks against foreign officials.”

Ben Rhodes, president Barack Obama’s deputy national security advisor for strategic communications – who according to a New York Times Magazine story promoted a misleading timeline among journalists about the Iran negotiations and created an “echo chamber” of reporters to sway public opinion – was indignant. “This is an outrageous action aimed at undermining diplomacy between an incoming US administration and Iran,” he tweeted. “It’s time for this ceaseless escalation to stop.”

And Jeremy Ben-Ami of the left-wing J Street lobbying group was enraged. “The assassination of a senior Iranian nuclear scientist appears to be an attempt to sabotage the ability of the incoming Biden administration to re-enter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as well as the chances of further diplomacy, either by limiting the political leeway of Iranian officials who want to restore the deal, or by triggering an escalation leading to military confrontation,” he said.

Each of these reactions pushed the same theme: whoever carried this out – and all fingers are pointed at Israel – intended to limit President-elect Joe Biden’s space for maneuvering and sabotage any possible diplomacy with Iran.

The unstated subtext of this type of criticism is the same: Those pesky Israelis, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu still leading the way, are at it again, trying to sabotage diplomatic efforts to solve the Iranian nuclear dilemma and undermine the Biden presidency from the get-go.

But that’s wrong. The assassination of Fakhrizadeh is not about Biden. Rather, it’s about Israel’s nearly three-decade effort to prevent Iran from getting a bomb. It’s about those pesky Israelis – if indeed they are behind the killing, and that has neither been acknowledged nor proven – trying to prevent what they view as an existential threat against them from coming into existence.

The assassination is just the latest in a series of steps over the last three decades taken to prevent Iran, which has said it wants to wipe Israel off the map, from getting the wherewithal to do it.

The killing of Fakhrizadeh will set back Iran’s efforts to attain the bomb because he was a key player in their nuclear program.

No one, obviously, is irreplaceable, but finding an equivalent replacement for some people at the top of the pyramid does take time. And the whole game for decades has been about buying time, kicking the can down the road in the hope that either in the interim the regime of the ayatollahs would be changed, or the Iranian leaders themselves would just realize that the price for continuing their nuclear program is just too high.

That Iran has been unable to realize its nuclear ambitions up until now, though it has been trying since the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, is not because of a lack of trying, or because they are any less capable than any of the other countries that have nuclear weapons. Rather, it’s because of actions that Israel and others in the West have taken over the years to bar their path.

These actions included setting up straw companies selling damaged goods to the Iranians so that when they would spin their centrifuges, they would blow up; computer worms and cyber sabotage; mysterious explosions; and assassinations.

Most people, when imagining how Israel – as it has pledged – might stop Iran from getting a bomb, automatically imagine it will be via bombs or missiles falling from the skies, as was the case when Israel destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, or the Syrian one in 2007. But who says that has to be the way? To imagine that this would be the case would be to fight the next war using the methods of the last one – rarely a winning formula.

So far, Iran has been kept from reaching its nuclear goals through numerous smaller bore actions, of which the killing of Fakhrizadeh is just the most recent example, rather than through one big, dramatic explosion.

To present the killing of Fakhrizadeh as a move intended simply to make things more complicated for Biden is to fail to fully appreciate the degree to which the Israeli government genuinely believes a nuclear Iran is an existential threat that must be stopped at all costs.

Moreover, the killing need not undermine the diplomacy that Biden might want to pursue. The hit was carried out under the outgoing Trump administration. If Iran does indeed want to turn over a new leaf with the new administration – which it is very much in its interests to do – then it would only be counterproductive to let this killing stand in the way.

What would Iran stand to gain by taking actions against the US at this time, or turning a cold shoulder to Biden, especially since this did not take place under his watch?

In this context, however, the Israeli perspective is also worth noting, which is that the JCPOA is a non-starter because under its terms, Iran will be able to produce as much nuclear fuel as it wants in 2030. And as steps such as Friday’s assassination show, Israel – if it was involved – is not going to sit idly by and allow what it deems to be an existential threat to develop, regardless of who is the US president.

As for all the threats and concerns about Iranian retribution against Israeli and/or Jewish targets around the world, these threats need to be taken very seriously, but also need not be paralyzing. Angry marches with Hebrew signs in Tehran calling for Tel Aviv to be razed are meant as psychological warfare: to petrify Israelis.

But if the reports are true that Israel was involved in Fakhrizadeh’s killing, the manner in which it was carried out – in broad daylight and without anyone being caught – shows again Israel’s tremendous capabilities, including the ability to smite the head of the snake in its nest. And that is something Iran would be wise to take into consideration while weighing its next moves.

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