The latest in the history of the decades-long Iranian nuclear program is who murdered Iranian senior nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on November 27th. It would be stupid for someone to take responsibility for the risk of retaliation. Iran, as usual, accuses Israel – noting that Israel was also accused of participating in the 2010 and 2012 assassinations of other Iranian nuclear scientists. At the time of writing, there is no definitive evidence. If emotions are high, however, this could become a catalyst for the next Middle East war.
The timing and rationale behind Iran’s nuclear and missile programs are well documented. This also applies to the opposition of most other countries in the Middle East and around the world. Supra-regional interventions are also documented, be it the provision of technology and resources or arms control and disarmament efforts. On the one hand, Iran called for the creation of a free trade area for weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East and signed the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This was one of many Cold War and post-Cold War treaties aimed at reducing arms control and disarmament conflicts.
At the same time, Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini has been looking for civil nuclear power since 1984, and that is acceptable to the world community. Iranian personnel have been trained by China and Pakistan, and Russia has agreed to build the nuclear power plant. However, there were reasons to suggest this as a way of attaining military nuclear strength, and in 1996 US President Bill Clinton approved an embargo on Iran for attempting to acquire nuclear weapons. The American cause for concern since 1996 has been that in addition to a nuclear program, Iran also has an ongoing missile program which, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has had the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon to targets in the Middle East and Eastern Europe and aspires worldwide since 2003 at.
Global cause for concern was compounded by Iran’s involvement in civil wars such as Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, support for nongovernmental groups in Lebanon and Gaza, the attack on civilian shipping in the Persian Gulf, and the ongoing clash as a Shiite Muslim state of the Sunni-Muslim world. This holds the potential for an escalation of the diverse conflicts in the region. As a result, efforts have been made to negotiate conflict reduction and arms control with Iran. The most recent was the JCPOA signed on July 14, 2015.
When Donald Trump was elected US President in 2016, he was used to impose embargoes and sanctions on Iran by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who spoke out against the JCPOA. In May 2018, Trump withdrew the US from the 2015 nuclear deal and took tough economic measures against Iran. The other signatory states continued to respect the agreement. It followed American and Israeli indecision about the options of what to do next and the greater implications for US politics. Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election became a catalyst for change as Biden said in his campaign that America would return to the 2015 deal with Iran.
After his election loss, Donald Trump reportedly looked for options to beat Iran. The president’s senior advisors have stopped him, although it is unclear whether he chose any other option. Then, on November 17, both Israel and Saudi Arabia reiterated their agreed-upon message that Iran will never have nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities. Netanyahu spoke to Biden over the phone about Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s repeated offer that Iran would be ready to return to the 2015 nuclear deal negotiated during the Obama-Biden administration. At this point, nothing seemed out of the ordinary in Iran. There also appeared to be a merger of interests between Trump (for his remaining days in office), Israel, and Saudi Arabia versus Iran.
The Trump administration issued a statement “The Importance of Sanctions Against Iran” on Nov. 18, arguing that the government’s moves against Iran made the world a safer place and should not be reversed – a reference to Trump’s Withdrawal from the JCPOA in May 2018. On November 22, Netanyahu traveled to Saudi Arabia and reportedly met the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The visit marked a historic first in diplomatic relations between the two states, which Saudi officials later denied because of their controversial nature. Later, on November 22nd, Saudi Arabian Minister Adel al-Jubeir paraphrased Netanyahu’s red lines on Iran, saying, “Saudi Arabia has made it very clear that it will do everything it can to protect its people and territories.” He even went so far as to say that if Iran were to get nuclear weapons, the kingdom would look for nuclear weapons itself.
The next day, November 23, the Middle East awoke to news that Israeli jets had hit eight targets in Syria, including a location at Damascus International Airport that served as Iran’s headquarters. The strike was in retaliation for explosives placed on the Syrian-Israeli border by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Later that day, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo toured the Golan Heights, a first since the US recognized Israeli sovereignty over it, and was also the first to visit a settlement in the West Bank. Also on that day, King Salman urged the world to take “a decisive stance” to address Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear and ballistic missile programs in his annual address to the Saudi Shura Council, the government’s top advisory body. Like Netanyahu, Salman has a strong position on Iran’s engagement in Syria. He was the first Arab leader to condemn Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s suppression of the 2011 Arab Spring protests. He has supplied arms and ammunition to rebel groups to counter arms shipments from Iran to the Syrian government.
If the result of the US elections triggered the IPO of Netanyahu’s visit to Saudi Arabia, then the historic visit by the future Biden administration should possibly signal a unified front against Iran: there is no return to the 2015 agreement Formal relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia have not yet been normalized, the reported visit was likely a signal to Iran to keep a close watch as regional events unfold. Perhaps Iran is also annoyed by the Abrahamic Accords mediated by the United States and signed between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and then the normalization of Israeli relations with Sudan. These may be signs of increasing diplomatic and possibly military mobilization against Iran.
Five days after Netanyahu’s reported visit to Saudi Arabia, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the senior Iranian nuclear physicist, was murdered. Many questions follow. Was it an American option to stop or slow down Iran’s nuclear and missile program? Was it Israel or Saudi Arabia who reaffirmed their message to Iran with deeds that speak louder than words? Was it a third party that intended to move Iran to attack Israel? Was it someone’s intention to undercut Biden’s diplomatic options? Will this lead to a reduction in conflict or vice versa? Why did Iran on Sunday announce its intention to withdraw regulatory access to its nuclear facilities and set deadlines for several steps to accelerate and improve its nuclear infrastructure and production?
It is fair to say that regardless of the answers to these questions, there are two things to outline. First, the events surrounding the assassination are strong messages to Iran, as well as others outside the region, that they should take into account the growing proximity of Israel and Saudi Arabia and the strengthening of the regional and global coalition following the Abrahamic Accords. Second, it is reasonable to believe that the trajectory of events shows that nothing is set in stone. On the one hand, former opponents (Israel and Saudi Arabia) can normalize diplomatic relations, on the other hand, regional escalation is always possible.
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