A top nuclear scientist named Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed on November 27 in his car. The Iranian government downplayed his role in the nuclear program, claiming that he was important due to his involvement in research for coronavirus test kits. He was crucial in Iran’s nuclear program in the early 2000s. Admiral Shamkhani and the Iranian media claim that Fakhrizadeh was killed by remote, electronic weapons, though Iranian versions of what happened are questionable and have changed significantly. However, it appears that Fakhrizadeh was mortally wounded when his car was sprayed with bullets in the town of Absard. A truck is reported to have exploded from a bomb inside of it during the attack. Iranian intelligence and security groups were aware of people plotting to assassinate Fakhrizadeh. Admiral Shamkhani claimed that the Mujahadeen-e Khalq and Isreal are potentially to blame. The Mujahadeen-e Khalq are a left-wing Muslim group who opposed the Shah of Iran, though they have disarmed. They see Maryam Rajavi as the true president of Iran and oppose the government. An unnamed Isreali official was quoted as having said that “Iran’s aspirations for nuclear weapons, promoted by Mr. Fakhrizadeh, posed such a menace that the world should thank Isreal”.

Israel to Blame?

The Iranian as well as the people within the American government blamed Israel. In 2018, a team of Isreali commandos with high-powered torches blasted their way into a vault of a heavily guarded warehouse deep in Iran and made off with 5,000 pages of top-secret papers on the country’s nuclear program. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cited the documents to hint at equally bold operations to come. He singled out Fakhrizadeh as the leader of Iran’s covert attempts to assemble a nuclear weapon.  

Escalation and De-escalation of Tensions

There have been multiple recent attacks against Iran coming from both the US and Israel, and Fakhrizadeh is seen as the most recent victim.  Iran has been behind a recent rocket attack against a US embassy in Iraq. Iran also attacked two military bases in Iraq. Israel has recently deployed a submarine in the Persian Gulf in a message of deterrence to Iran. For decades, Israel has embraced a strategy of targeted assassinations in trying to slow down potential progress toward the development of a nuclear weapon among its hostile neighbors. Israeli intelligence agencies have been linked to the killings of scientists as far back as Egypt in the 1960s. Iran first accused Israel of killing one of its scientists when he dropped dead in his laboratory after a poisoning in 2007. Later a series of killings of Iranian scientists were attributed by Iran to Israel. There were efforts at de-escalation after the initial attacks in Iraq, but these have been halted by recent aggression and the US’s alliance to Israel. Trump has warned Iraq after the recent attack on the US embassy. Continual conflict may ultimately lead to war, though there has been repeated de-escalation. 

Trump’s Sanctions

Trump has exerted high economic sanctions against Iran or “maximum pressure”, creating desperation in Iranian leadership to get some form of relief (as sanctions are supposed to). To many Iranians, that has made Trump’s last months in office as no time to lash back and risk renewed hostilities. Former official of the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Guidance, Mohammad-Hossein Khoshvaght considers that “From today until Trump leaves the White House is the most dangerous period for Iran.” Many Iranians fear Trump more than Biden, who promised to lift sanctions in exchange for a halt to nuclear research that might produce a weapon. Trump left the Iran Nuclear Deal, claiming that it was a one-sided agreement. As such, the US is not currently bound by its rules. Iran has stayed in the agreement, though it has violated its rules. Biden promises to re-enter the agreement if Iran complies with the deal’s restrictions. Biden also wants more diplomacy with Iran, criticizing the killing of Qassem Soleimani, a major general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Trump ordered more troops sent to Iran and the surrounding area after the withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal increased tensions with Iran. Biden wants less to do with counterterrorism in the region and less focus on working with local allies. Biden has called for an end to the support of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, which Trump has supported. 

Iran Nuclear Deal

Under the Iran Nuclear Deal, or JCPOA, Iran was to limit low-enriched uranium by 97 percent for fifteen years. This figure was supposed to be enough for civilian power and research but not building a nuclear weapon. However, the number of centrifuges allowed was sufficient for a nuclear weapon but not nuclear power. For ten years, the act limits Iran’s centrifuges by two thirds, having Iran place them in storage. The only plant allowed to enrich uranium was the Natanz plant. The problem with this act is the enforcement mechanism. The JCPOA does not require Iran to submit to International Atomic Energy inspections of facilities and military sites where nuclear activities are suspected to have occurred. Iran, a serial cheater on its nuclear and international obligations, can delay inspections of such facilities for up to 24 days, giving it significant time to hide evidence of covert nuclear activities. Trump got out of the nuclear non-proliferation agreement in May 2018, but Iran stayed in the agreement in fear of sanctions. Saudi Arabia and Israel praised the US for leaving the agreement, though it is unclear yet how Iran will react or if tensions will continue to escalate with a Biden administration.

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