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By Robert Johnson
Amid speculations about Iran’s reaction to the assassination of the country’s eminent nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on a road outside of Tehran on November 27, participants in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) have reiterated their commitment to preserving the agreement and stressed their respective efforts in this regard.
The pledge emerged from a virtual ministerial meeting of the E3/EU+2 (China, France, Germany, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy) and the Islamic Republic of Iran on December 21, 2020. The EU High Representative Josep Borrell chaired the meeting.
The ministers agreed that full and effective implementation of the JCPOA by all parties remains crucial and asserted the need to address ongoing implementation challenges, including on nuclear non-proliferation and commitments to lift sanctions.
According to the German Foreign Affairs ministry, the ministers underscored the important role of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) as the sole impartial and independent international organisation mandated by the UN Security Council to monitor and verify the implementation of the nuclear non-proliferation commitments under the JCPOA. They stressed the importance of continued good faith cooperation with the IAEA.
Ministers recalled that the JCPOA, as endorsed by UN Security Council resolution 2231 (2015), remains a key element of the global nuclear non-proliferation architecture and a significant achievement of multilateral diplomacy that contributes to regional and international security.
Ministers reiterated their deep regret towards the US withdrawal from the agreement. They stressed that the Security Council resolution 2231 remains fully in force. The United States announced its withdrawal from the JCPOA, also known as the “Iran nuclear deal” or the “Iran deal”, on May 8, 2018.
Ministers agreed to continue dialogue to ensure the return of the US to the JCPOA and underlined their readiness to positively address this in a joint effort.
Analysts are far from certain how Fakhrizadeh’s death might impact Iran’s nuclear program. He reportedly led the Islamic Republic of Iran’s alleged covert nuclear weapons program in the early 2000s. Most recently he served as a brigadier general in Iran’s Ministry of Defence and Armed Forces Logistics, as head of the ministry’s Defensive Research and Innovation Organization (DRIO). He also taught physics at Imam Hossein University, an institution associated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards.
Fakhrizadeh is believed to have been involved in the nuclear talks in some capacity and received one of Iran’s highest honours for his service. However, his active role, if any, in Iran’s nuclear program before his death is otherwise unclear.
According to Muhammad Sahimi, the effects of Fakhrizadeh’s death on the DRIO, tasked with overseeing advanced defence R&D, is also difficult to discern without knowing the details of his work or the organization’s pool of personnel to draw on. “Leadership changes in any organization entail disruption. But the nature of R&D projects, institutionalization of knowledge in Iran’s military-industrial complex and the DRIO’s relatively deep human resources pool suggest Fakhrizadeh’s death may have a limited impact,” he writes for the Responsible Statecraft website.
Sahimi’s analysis has been re-published by Iran Review, “the leading independent, non-governmental and non-partisan website representing scientific and professional approaches towards Iran’s political, economic, social, religious, and cultural affairs, its foreign policy, and regional and international issues within the framework of analysis and articles”.
Sahimi is a professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. In the past two decades, he has published extensively on Iran’s political developments and its nuclear program.
While the perpetrators of this attack may have hoped to draw the Iranian government into a military conflict with the United States during the Trump administration’s remaining weeks in office, says Sahimi, there’s little evidence to suggest Iran’s calculus has changed.
Though there have been calls for vengeance from across Iran’s leadership and political spectrum, under its policy of “strategic patience,” Iran has absorbed successive blows from the U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign since May 2018, adds Sahimi. These include one of the most punishing sanctions regimes in recent memory, an aggressive cyber offensive and sabotage effort against Iran’s critical infrastructure including nuclear facilities, and the assassination of senior government personnel.
Analysts agree that Israel and the United States had been looking for Fakhrizadeh for at least 15 years as part of a larger covert war against Tehran supposedly designed to slow its nuclear and missile programs, which Israel insists are aimed at producing weapons and the means to deliver them. But, have multiple assassinations, considered “criminal” by the European Union and condemned by Agnes Callamard, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial Executions, achieved their goals?
No. Because “Iran’s nuclear advances went on, even as its scientists were picked off, one by one”.
Dr. Ardeshir Hosseinpour, an authority on electromagnetism and its application to the nuclear program, was the first major Iranian scientist to be assassinated, on January 15, 2007. The last report by the IAEA on Iran’s nuclear program before Dr. Hosseinpour’s death was issued exactly two months before the assassination, on November 15, 2006.
That report confirmed that Iran had produced no enriched uranium at the time and had not built any significant number of centrifuges used for enrichment. Between January 2010 and January 2012, four Iranian scientists were assassinated.
Sahimi points to a fact that has been often ignored: Pursuant to the signing of the JCPOA, Iran subsequently exported 97 per cent of its LEU (Low enriched uranium) to Russia, placed over 13,000 centrifuges into storage; removed centrifuges from the Fordow site destroyed the Arak research reactor and began implementing the Additional Protocol of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which gives the IAEA the right to conduct more intrusive inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities to ensure its compliance with the NPT.
However, in return, writes Sahimi, “the Trump administration exited the JCPOA in 2018 in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231 and imposed the harshest U.S. economic sanctions against Iran”.
Besides, for two decades the United States and Israel left no stone unturned to attempt to sabotage Iran’s missile program, which is its only credible conventional defence in the absence of a modern air force.
None of the acts of assassinations and sabotage, with the possible exception of the Stuxnet attack – involving a malware that was designed to sabotage Iran’s nuclear enrichment facility – “has appreciably slowed Iran’s missile and nuclear programs”. In fact, science has become indigenous, and when a program’s leader is killed, many are ready to take over.
“Given Iran’s strategic importance, the change in the attitude of the Iranian people toward the U.S. and Israel may well be the most consequential result of these acts of sabotage and murder – and that does not bode well for the future,” warns Sahimi, the professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
Highlighting another aspect of Fakhrizadeh’s assassination, The New York Times’ David E. Sanger warns that it “threatens to cripple President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s effort to revive the Iran nuclear deal before he can even begin his diplomacy with Tehran. And that may well have been a main goal of the operation”.
He quotes intelligence officials saying that there is little doubt about Israel having been behind the killing, especially as it had all the hallmarks of a precisely timed operation by Mossad, the country’s spy agency. “And the Israelis have done nothing to dispel that view.”
In fact, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long identified Iran as an existential threat and named the assassinated scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, as national enemy No. 1, capable of building a weapon that could threaten a country of eight million in a single blast.
“But Mr. Netanyahu also has a second agenda,” adds Sanger. “There must be no return to the previous nuclear agreement,” he declared shortly after it became clear that Mr. Biden – who has proposed exactly that – would be the next president.
Meanwhile, analysts such as Jonathan Power are warning that the thirteenth Presidential elections are scheduled to be held in Iran on June 18, 2021. The moderate Rouhani will be stepping down and there is the likelihood that a hard-line conservative will succeed him – someone who is less keen on negotiations.
He is of the view that a new deal could be wrapped up in a month. “If negotiators on both sides honour their pledges to return at once to how it was before Trump squashed the deal this is possible. It will make the Middle East a safer and calmer place. Then will be the time to make it even safer by negotiating the other divisive issues, hopefully with the same good faith,” writes Jonathan Power.
Photo credit: Tasmin News Agency.