NOTE: I just published a Middle East Eye piece on the limitations imposed on Biden’s Middle East policy by Israeli and Israel Lobby constraints. I also did the following interviews on the presidential transition and how it will impact the region. Listen to them here:
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Israel’s Mossad assassinated yet another Iranian Nuclear scientist in Tehran today. It was the sixth such murder by the Israeli murder squad since such killings began in 2010. But this operation was different. The victim, Moshen Fakrizadeh was the father of Iran’s nuclear program and the most senior scientist in the country. He founded it and has remained a key leader since the beginning.
As I noted after last week’s Mossad hit against another figure in Iran, the number two al Qaeda official, the Mossad likely coordinated all the elements of the murder short of actually firing the gun. For that, the Israelis use their hit men of the Iranian terror group, the MeK, to do the dirty work on the ground.
During the Obama administration, the U.S. collaborated with Israel to sabotage the country’s nuclear program through Operation Olympic Games. It also looked the other way as the Mossad eliminated the scientists engaged in nuclear research. But at some point, after Obama decided he would pursue a nuclear deal with the Iranians, both the killings and the sabotage stopped. Undoubtedly, Obama directed the Israelis to stand down and they did.
But now, in the waning days of the Trump administration, all bets and all constraints are off. In fact, Pompeo-Kushner-Trump are without question encouraging the Israelis to do their worst. These two recent killings may only be the tip of the iceberg, since there are reports from Barak Ravid and my own Israeli source that either the U.S. or Israel plan their own assault against Iran’s nuclear program.
It’s possible that these killings are a prelude to a much stronger blow. Though it’s possible the U.S. has placed some limit of Israeli actions and told them not to attack Iran, but instead permitted them to kill those it did.
I have written this after virtually every Israeli assassination I’ve reported here: they don’t work. That’s assuming of course that these murders are designed to weaken the “enemy” or prevent it from pursuing whatever policy or operation the victim directed. But in this case, the assassination has no counter-terror value. It is simply a political act not just of vengeance, but of provocation. The Israelis have two goals: to limit Biden’s range of policy options on Iran and to provoke Iran into retaliation that would undermine any chance for renewing JCPOA or normalization. Fakrizadeh was simply a tool to achieve those aims.
He had little value as a target. As with every other Israeli assassination victim, the organization (whether Hezbollah, Hamas or Iran) can replace them. In fact, it knows that it must prepare others to take their place in precisely this situation. The victim’s successor is probably already known to Iran’s leaders. He will carry on the work and possibly do so even more brilliantly than his predecessor.
This is outrageous. Any nation would consider this an act of war. Imagine if Iran had murdered an Israeli scientist. A direct attempt by Bibi to block Biden’s diplomacy with Iran (best case) or provoke a war. It will do nothing to set back Iran’s program. https://t.co/L6MHRKddvA
— Joe Cirincione (@Cirincione) November 27, 2020
Here, Obama’s CIA director, John Brennan calls out the killing for what it is, a war crime. Though of course, he conveniently neglects to mention that he himself approved similar murders (even of U.S. citizens) while he served in government :
This was a criminal act & highly reckless. It risks lethal retaliation & a new round of regional conflict.
Iranian leaders would be wise to wait for the return of responsible American leadership on the global stage & to resist the urge to respond against perceived culprits. https://t.co/0uZhyBTM3S
— John O. Brennan (@JohnBrennan) November 27, 2020
Anticipating my criticism, Brennan tweeted that Obama only killed “illegal combatants” affiliated with terror groups, while Israel killed government officials. The distinction does highlight the graver crime of the Israelis, but avoids the fact that the U.S. assassinations were no more effective than the Israeli ones.
Pres.-elect Biden has a choice: either he can permit the Israelis and Trump to do their worst at boxing in his policy options when he assumes office on January 20th; or he can act decisively now to warn the Israelis that if they continue on this path there would be serious repercussions in bilateral relations. The only way to get Israel to stop doing something is either to threaten a consequence or offer something valuable in return.
In 2008, before Barack Obama was sworn in as president, Israel was waging a savage war against Lebanon. George Bush exerted no pressure on Israel to accept a ceasefire. In fact, Condoleezza Rice has heralded the war as the “birth pangs of a new Middle East” in the region.
It was then, according to secret files provided to me by Shamai Leibowitz, based on Justice Department surveillance, that Obama’s key Middle East advisor, Dan Shapiro, made a late night visit to Israeli ambassador, Michael Oren’s home. I don’t know what exactly was said that night, but we do know the outcome: Israel did accept the ceasefire and the war ended before Obama’s inauguration. Which was precisely what Obama wanted. He did not want Israeli cluster bombs and artillery fire raining down on Southern Lebanon during his first inauguration.
That is precisely what Biden needs to do now. Send Tony Blinken, his secretary of state-designate to Israeli ambassador, Ron Dermer’s house tonight, and tell him if Israeli actions don’t stop now, then the incoming president will take decisive action come January 20th. For example, these murders are war crimes. Perhaps a referral to the ICC for any future violations of international law (though we couldn’t make the referral since we are not an ICC signatory).
The only drawback is that in 2008 Obama was dealing with Ehud Olmert as prime Minister. Olmert was a pragmatic politician. He understood how deals are made and commitments kept. Bibi Netanyahu has no such compunctions. He would sell out his own mother if it offered him political or financial gain. So Biden may not have much leverage over Netanyahu. But that shouldn’t stop him from trying.
Cutting off that $30-billion aid package Obama negotiated with Israel in order to mollify them about the JCPOA deal, would be a good start. But does Biden have the spine to go up against Israel and the Israel Lobby? Is he willing to spend political capital to do so? Or is he so tied up in undoing the multiple disasters created by Trump, which have wrecked our public health system and our economy, that he decides this is not a high enough priority to engage?
On the other hand, disengaging and allowing Israel to have its way on these matters would likely foreclose Biden’s intention to return to the JCPOA agreement. If Israel continues to attack Iranian assets, there will be no one in the Iranian leadership willing to engage with Biden on this or any other matter. Can the president-elect afford not to engage?
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.