Opinion | A Scorched Earth Strategy on Iran

When Israel engineered the assassinations of a half-dozen Iranian nuclear scientists from 2010 to 2012, supporters of these killings argued that they would help slow a nuclear program at a time when multilateral diplomacy was showing little progress.

The killing on Friday of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, comes in a very different context.

Iran is again producing a large amount of uranium, but it is not close to the level needed to produce a nuclear weapon. Its actions are largely driven by the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, which was intended to put a lid on Iran’s ability to amass enough highly enriched uranium for a single weapon until January 2031.

Iran has said repeatedly that it will go back into full compliance with the nuclear agreement if the Biden administration agrees to do the same, and lifts the onerous sanctions piled on by President Trump.

So why kill Mr. Fakhrizadeh now?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, with the support of President Trump, seems intent on scorching the earth to make it harder for any return to diplomacy under President-elect Joe Biden.

Israel and the Trump administration apparently fear that a Biden administration would seek a quick return to the nuclear agreement, which could revive Iran’s struggling economy and make it harder to contain its influence in the Middle East. Killing Mr. Fakhrizadeh makes that all the more difficult.

The Israeli government, as is its wont, has not taken responsibility for the assassination, but numerous published reports — and the audacious manner in which Mr. Fakhrizadeh was killed — strongly point toward agents of the Mossad. For its part, the Trump administration may or may not have known about the plot in advance, but Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, was recently in Israel, and the administration has not condemned the killing so far.

The killing of Mr. Fakhrizadeh, the reputed mastermind of Iran’s past weaponization efforts, will not dent Iran’s nuclear expertise, which is considerable. According to American intelligence, Iran did have a program aimed at producing nuclear warheads that ended 17 years ago, after it was detected by the C.I.A. and revealed by an Iranian opposition group.

The latest killing may not provoke Iran to build nuclear weapons, but it will likely feed the animosity between the United States and Iran, making diplomacy that much harder. It could strengthen hard-line factions in Iran arguing against a return to diplomacy — factions seeking to complete their control of Iranian politics in presidential elections scheduled for June.

Iran’s leadership reacted angrily but cautiously to the assassination. President Hassan Rouhani has said that Iran will respond in a manner and at a time of its own choosing. He blamed Israel, adding, “This brutal assassination shows that our enemies are passing through anxious weeks, weeks that they feel their pressure era is coming to an end and the global conditions are changing.”

That statement suggests that Iran will seek revenge against Israel in some other form. Iran may increase its support for Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad. It will ensure that Israel remains “the lesser Satan” in Iranian propaganda for the foreseeable future, and Israeli soft targets — such as tourists and students — could be at risk, along with Israeli officials overseas. Americans, too, may be vulnerable for their association with Israel — on top of the Trump administration’s assassination of the Iranian senior general Qassim Suleimani in January.

With temperatures running so high, the incoming Biden administration now faces a serious challenge. Mr. Biden has vowed to return to negotiations with Iran, but he and his team cannot do much more than message through the media to Iran to stay patient until the inauguration on Jan. 20 — and to the Israelis to stop their campaign of sabotage.

Meanwhile, European countries that have diplomatic relations with Iran and are still parties to the nuclear agreement can help bridge the gap until the Biden inauguration. Britain, France and Germany should seek a swift convening of the commission that monitors implementation of the Iran nuclear agreement. Their foreign ministers should act even sooner and issue a statement condemning the assassination as illegal under international law and damaging to the cause of nonproliferation. A spokesperson for the European Union’s high representative for foreign and security policy has already described the killing as a “criminal act.”

For a variety of reasons, Iran’s nuclear program has been slow moving. It began in the 1950s with the gift of knowledge from the Eisenhower administration under the “Atoms for Peace” initiative. The Johnson administration gave Iran its first small nuclear research reactor a decade later.

In the more than 60 years since Iran’s nuclear efforts began, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea have all developed bombs. Iran has not. It still has only one functioning nuclear power plant.

It would be the ultimate tragedy if Israel’s aggression now led Iran to change its calculus and go for weapons. This could spark a nuclear arms race throughout the region and ensure that the Middle East remains dysfunctional, riven by sectarian and other conflicts, its peoples’ potential for productive work stymied and its youth vulnerable to recruitment by terrorists who have struck innocent people around the world.

Barbara Slavin (@BarbaraSlavin1) directs the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.

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