Near Tehran, an Assassination à la Breaking Bad

Somebody in the Middle East must have been watching Breaking Bad reruns. On the last episode of the acclaimed crime series, its anti-hero Walter White makes an effective use of a remote-controlled machine gun to slaughter a small army of neo-Nazis.

A somewhat similar event was reported last Friday on the road leading east from the Iranian capital of Tehran to a city named Absard. According to various Iranian sources, a machine gun opened fire from a parked Nissan, spraying a passing convoy of cars. Immediately afterwards, the Nissan exploded. Apparently all this occurred —somewhat bizarrely — while no person was inside the car. Everything had been done by remote control, and the assassins managed to escape the scene. Perhaps they were never even really there.

Was Fakhrizadeh Really ‘the Father of the Iranian Nuclear Program’?

The target of this mysterious attack was the Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh who died in the attack. Western media outlets began referring to him as the “Father of the Iranian Nuclear Program.” The title may not be entirely accurate. Fakhrizadeh was actually the man in charge of Iran’s clandestine military project — the one meant to supply the Islamic Republic with its first nuclear bomb, a goal which the regime has been vehemently denying for years.

American and Israeli intelligence sources describe Fakhrizadeh as a genuine “talent” who led the project and had more knowledge of the secret aspects of the program than anyone else in Iran’s security establishment.

“Remember the name”, said Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, while exposing Fakhrizadeh for the first time in May 2018 at a Jerusalem press conference in which Israel presented the Iranian nuclear archive, stolen by Israeli Mossad agents from a site in Tehran four months earlier.

In the Crosshairs: Iranian Military and Nuclear Program Leaders

It is, indeed, Israel which Iran blames for the latest attack. Fakhrizadeh wasn’t the first Iranian nuclear scientist to die from unnatural causes. During the first years of the previous decade, four other scientists were killed in Tehran, while another was wounded. In fact, Iran’s covert projects have been riddled with deaths and seemingly unfortunate accidents. Last January, in Iraq, the U.S. assassinated General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the “Quds” forces, an elite branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). And in July, an explosion destroyed centrifuges in the Natanz nuclear site, reportedly pushing the project back by about two years.

Unlike the nuclear archives raid, Israel didn’t publicly claim responsibility for Professor Fakhrizadeh’s killing. Yet Israeli leaders have often stated that they will do everything in their power to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear state. And a few hours after the assassination, while Netanyahu recorded his weekly message to the public, published on social media, the PM told Israeli citizens that he would not be able to “tell you everything” that was done during the week. Other Israeli sources, speaking anonymously to Western media, claimed that the world owed them thanks for ridding it of Fakhrizadeh’s potentially lethal presence.

The Reaction Stateside

The reaction from Washington had been more subdued than euphoric. US officials hurried to explain to the DC press that this time the operation was Israeli, not American. Some veterans of the Obama administration took to Twitter to attack Benjamin Netanyahu. Former CIA Director, John Brennan, described the assassination as a “criminal act & highly reckless,” claiming it risks provoking a new round of regional conflict. It was, Brennan wrote, “state-sponsored terrorism”. Brennan did not mention Israel directly.

As for the President-Elect Joe Biden, as of this moment neither Biden nor any of his new appointees have muttered a word over the incident. Yet it is safe to estimate that they are probably angry at Netanyahu. Like many former senior officials in Israel’s defense establishment, Biden’s people suspect that the operation’s goal was two-fold: to further complicate the situation in the Middle East and also to make it harder for the Biden administration to rush to resume negotiations with Iran on a new nuclear deal.

The Importance of the Iran Nuclear Deal

As you may remember, Trump decided to drop out of the nuclear agreement in May 2018. Biden, like Trump, intended to resume discussions with the Iranians after January 2020, in order to try and achieve a better deal than the 2015 agreement, shaped by the Obama administration. But Netanyahu isn’t sure he can influence Biden the way he does Trump. His relationship with Barack Obama and his Vice-President, Biden, had suffered through periods of turmoil.

Obama and Netanyahu didn’t agree on the Iranian nuclear threat or the possible solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Perhaps no less importantly, they couldn’t stand each other on a personal and professional level. Biden has declared himself Israel’s — and Netanyahu’s — friend, but it is no secret that Netanyahu was rooting for a different outcome in the US presidential elections.

As for the Iranians themselves, they have already announced that they will be happy to go back to the negotiations table and to stricter adherence to the original agreement, if only Biden will agree to lift the sanctions implemented by Trump. But perhaps they have a more urgent matter to attend to, even before Biden’s inauguration in seven and a half weeks.

Different Iranian leaders and officials have directly threatened Israel with a military response to the scientist’s death. Israeli security agencies are particularly worried about the United Arab Emirates. After Israel and the UAE signed a normalization agreement with Trump’s blessing this past September, tens of thousands of Israelis are expected to visit Dubai this month alone. Israel has blamed Iran in the past for sponsoring terrorist acts against its citizens.

2020 was quite a terrible year for the Middle East, with a combination of the pandemic and violent incidents. Next year may still turn out just as bad — or worse.