The Iranian government is certain Friday’s assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was undertaken on orders issued by the Israeli government. Tehran’s suspicions immediately keyed on Israel and with good reason. The chances of this operation being an Israeli undertaking are high. After all, Fakhrizadeh was a senior scientist and an integral contributor to the Iranian nuclear program. Targeting Iran’s nuclear scientists would be a logical next step for Israeli intelligence following a summer campaign that saw Iranian nuclear sites targeted by sabotage, unexplained explosions and fires.
Outside of the Israeli possibility, there are two competing theories emerging among Western geopolitical analysts, and journalists. The first is that Farkhrizadeh’s killing was a political act intended to sour US-Iranian relations before the Biden administration has an opportunity to settle in. For this theory, the party responsible for the killing does not necessarily have to belong to a foreign intelligence agency. With US economic sanctions, and COVID-19 placing significant pressure on Iran’s economy, hardliners in Tehran have been demanding action against the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. The death of Farkhrizadeh certainly fits the bill as being an act worthy of retribution. The second theory is that the Trump administration is the responsible party, with its motivation being steeped in a deep desire to push Iran’s nuclear ambitions as far back as possible before 20 January, 2021. A third, less likely prospect is Saudi Arabia. Although the motivation is present, Riyadh’s General Intelligence Presidency does not have the ability to execute an operation as intricately planned as the Fakhrizadeh assassination apparently was.
Israel’s capabilities and motives are far more evident. The Mossad is more than capable of pulling off an operation such as this one. Given the present situation in the region, Tel Aviv has ample justification for ordering it. The Fakhrizadeh assassination might very well be a hedge against a future change in US policy regarding Iran. A Biden administration will be considerably less hawkish when it comes to Iran. Biden unveiled his foreign policy team last week and as expected, it appears weak. As we’ve seen in the past, a US willingness to engage in diplomacy to ease tensions with Iran encourages the Tehran regime to push ahead with its nuclear program, albeit in more inconspicuous fashion. Next month Israel could find its Iran policies and goals strikingly different from those of its US ally. Knocking off a senior Iranian scientist now deals a blow to the Iranian nuclear program, and as an added bonus informs the incoming Biden administration that its policies and stance towards Iran will not affect Israel’s own.