To outside weary eyes, the unending conflicts that go on in the Middle East amount to everyday background noise, a part of the paper to ignore amid the deluge of vaccine stories.
But to disregard a recent assassination in Tehran would be a mistake.
In a plot worthy of the best spy thriller, Dr Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the father of Iran’s nuclear programme, was gunned down on the outskirts of Tehran. The attack was carried out with ruthless efficiency, taking all of three minutes, seemingly conducted by remote-controlled car and weapons.
To add to the James Bond lustre of the hit, just days before Iran’s three chief adversaries met publicly for the first time in Neom, Saudi Arabia. It is not known what Benjamin Netanyahu (Prime Minister of Israel), Mike Pompeo (US Secretary of State) and Mohammed bin Salman (Crown Prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia) spoke about. But given the assassination of Fakhrizadeh just days later, my guess is that it wasn’t the weather.
While no one has claimed responsibility for the assassination, old Middle East hands almost uniformly suspect that Israel’s crack spy service, the Mossad, was behind the attack.
But, as always, beyond the spy glamour glitz, the key political risk questions relate to a single word: why?
Why take out Fakhrizadeh? Why now? To answer these larger points, understanding the context of the past few years of US-Iran relations is vital.
Oddly enough, both the Obama and Trump administrations’ strategic view of the Middle East starts from the same point: it is time for America to pivot away from a thankless region of decreasing geopolitical value (and, thanks to the US shale revolution, decreasing economic value too) and instead focus on Asia, where much of the new era’s rewards (the source of most of the world’s future growth) as well as its risks (the rise of China) are centred.
However, to accomplish this, the two administrations developed diametrically opposed strategies. For the Obama White House, the goal was to bring pariah Iran in from the cold, making it a “normal” regional power, along with Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, and Egypt.
In such a circumstance, the hope was that a regional balance of the power among the five would organically form (after a period of turmoil), allowing for a modicum of stability over time. In such a case, the US could then turn away from a region which has caused it little but grief, serving merely as an off-shore balancer, intervening only as a last resort if one of the regional powers attempted to upend the equilibrium.
This was the strategic rationale lying behind the west’s nuclear deal with Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which withdrew the world’s effective sanctions levied against Tehran and normalised its relations with the rest of the world, in return for Iran’s promise to limit the extent of its nuclear programme for the next 10 to 15 years.
The Trump administration came to a very different strategic conclusion: that there could be no organic balance of power when one of the regional players is in fact revolutionary, determined to upend and supplant the Middle East’s basic hierarchies.
For the Trump White House, Iran is a classic example of a revolutionary power. After the JCPOA was signed in 2015, Tehran has forged ahead with an expansionist agenda in the region, supporting a Shia crescent of Iranian allies in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. Such a destabilising force, the Trump team countered, should be taken on rather than appeased if the US ever wished to leave the Middle East in relatively stable condition as it pivots to Asia.
This very different political risk read explains Donald Trump’s dramatic abrogation of the JCPOA in May 2018, imposing punitive (and highly effective) further US sanctions on Iran as part of a new policy of “maximum pressure”. It also makes sense of the White House’s underrated diplomatic efforts, bringing about a Sunni-Israeli alliance (formally including Israel, Bahrain, UAE, and Sudan as members, and informally Saudi Arabia), held together by the glue of joint anti-Iranian fears.
It is only within this broader geopolitical context that the assassination of Fakhrizadeh is explicable.
With the Biden team looming ominously on the horizon and with the President-elect clear that he wants to re-enter the JCPOA with Iran, an entirely different US strategic viewpoint is about to emerge on the scene. The usual suspects (Trump’s team, the Israelis, and the Saudis) all know this, and know too that the new team will undo things in the region to their detriment.
That is why Fakhrizadeh was killed, and now. The goal of the three is to make conditions with Iran so fraught that Biden cannot easily re-enter JCPOA in particular or effortlessly change US policy in the region in general.
To some extent, the gambit seems to be working. An enraged Iranian parliament, dominated by anti-western hardliners, passed a law this past week which ups the diplomatic ante.
The new law obliges the present more pragmatic government, led by President Hassan Rouhani, to halt UN inspections of its nuclear sites and step up current enrichment to well beyond the JCPOA limits (up to 20 per cent) in the next two months, if sanctions are not eased.
For Biden, re-entering the JCPOA just got a lot more difficult. Tehran has imposed a very short time limit for doing so: if the US fails to meet it, Iran will by that time have damaged the outlines of the old accord beyond the point of resurrection.
If this proves to be the case, the assassination of Fakhrizadeh will have served its purpose. In any event, Iran and the Middle East just dramatically moved up the list of major political risks confronting the new Biden team.
Main image credit: Getty