Iranian Nuclear Scientist’s Assassination: Its Implications and Expectations from India

 By Dr. Manjari Singh
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While novel coronavirus is the persistent crisis that the world is facing, the assassination of a key Nuclear Physicist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in Iran on 27 November[1], has the potential to further aggravate the existing geopolitical churn in the Middle East. Given that, Fakhrizadeh, regarded as the head of the Iranian nuclear effort, was a critical asset to the country to achieve its nuclear programme, the fallouts of this targeted killing could be daunting! It is noteworthy that Iran’s growing influence in the region despite the US imposed sanctions, its closeness to China and the expiration of the UN-imposed arms embargo on Iran in October[2], has been concerning the other major players in the region and the Trump administration. Thus, the elimination of key operatives as part of covert operations to check Iran’s rise is of interest to many. Conflicting news on how the Scientist was assassinated is still doing the rounds; however, Iran was quick to allege Israeli Mossad’s involvement in the assassination. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted that “… this cowardice – with serious indications of Israeli role – shows desperate warmongering of perpetrators…”[3]

Iran’s quick declaration of Israeli involvement in the targeted killing is based on three premises. One, it was reported that Fakhrizadeh was killed by a “remote-controlled” or “satellite controlled” weapon outside of Tehran in Absard city. Such advanced use of weaponry and excellence in covert operations are Israel’s forte and thus suggest Israeli hand. Notably, in February 2008, Imad Mugniyeh, one of the main founders’ of Hezbollah and its Chief of Staff, was assassinated in a similar fashion by a car bomb detonation, allegedly in a joint operation by Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Mossad in Syria. Two, over the years as many as five Iranian Nuclear Scientists have been assassinated in such targeted killings either by poisoning or by unusual accidents. Three, the targeted killings stopped as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) had imposed strict restrictions on the Iranian nuclear programme. Nevertheless, after the US withdrawal from JCPOA in 2018 and President Trump’s usage of “maximum pressure” on Iran, irked the latter. In retaliation, Iran allegedly started enriching and stockpiling beyond JCPOA limits and it is since then the targeted killings are back. While three US Intelligence Officials have named Mossad behind the assassination, however, the Israeli Intelligence Agency has not claimed the murder.

The killing of the Nuclear Physicist who also served as a Brigadier General in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) adds to the already existing uncertainty facing the Middle East. Six distinct and visible changes in the region are social, political, and economic isolation of Iran in the region; internal fissures in Iran between the hardliners and the moderates; prospects of new alliances formed owing to the normalisation of relations between key Arab states and Israel; change in the US administration and its indication of renewing nuclear diplomacy with Iran upon holding the Office in a month’s time[4]; the visible rise of Turkey in the region and its claim as the leader of Islamic Ummah and its growing closeness to Iran; and finally China’s visible strategic footprint in the Middle East.[5] However, the most pressing concern for many in the region is the probable US rapprochement with Iran. Notably, the nomination of Anthony Blinken as the US secretary of State has raised the eyebrows of the Arabs particularly Crown Prince MBS and Israel’s Netanyahu. Blinken is regarded as the “known supporter” of a rapprochement with Iran and has also shown his disinterest with the US embassy shift in Israel.[6] Needless to mention, this probable change in US policy has irked the Israelis, Arabs and the incumbent Trump administration alike. And therefore, some analysts also believe that the killing of Fakhrizadeh was to sabotage Biden Administration’s policy in the Middle East.[7] To substantiate this claim, it is believed that a secret meeting was held between Crown Prince MBS, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Mike Pompeo on 23 November in Neom city in Saudi Arabia, that is, just a few days before the assassination of the Nuclear Physicist.[8] Not to mention, the alleged meeting took place a day after President-elect Joe Biden nominated Blinken as the Secretary of State on 22 November.[9]

This is the second assassination that Iran faced this year! At the beginning of the year, Iran’s top military leader Major General Qassem Soleimani was killed in a targeted drone attack by the US. These underlying complications added to the fact that Iran has lost two of its key operatives in a year suggest that the Persian state has been pushed to the brink. It can only be analysed that if the menace created by COVID-19 was not this overwhelming[10] and its internal political fissures were not this distinct[11], the country would have retaliated forcefully as promised.

Nevertheless, its growing closeness to China and elevation of relations to Comprehensive Strategic Partnership level with US$400 billion deal and military cooperation suggests that the Persian state was already gearing up. The recent killing of the Nuclear Scientist has only strengthened its resolve to seek revenge and Iran has promised for a “calculative, decisive” response to the killing.[12] Iranian Parliament’s bill to stop nuclear inspections and suspension of its cooperation to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) post-Fakhrizadeh’s killing is the first step towards Iran’s calculative move.[13] If Iran acts upon scrapping its relations with IAEA, the efforts to revive the 2015 Nuclear Deal becomes redundant and this will further wreck US-Iran relations despite Biden’s ascendance as the President. Moreover, it is only a matter of time when Iran will be seen activating its proxies in the region. And this should concern the international community as an unstable Middle East will lead to regional and international crisis and the world cannot afford that especially with the slowing of economy due to the pandemic.

Given the sensitivity, few countries inside the region and internationally have condemned the killing but have called for maximum restraint to avoid escalation of tension. Iraq, Qatar, and the UAE are the only countries amongst the Gulf Arab nations along with Syria and Turkey in the region, to condemn the killing. Nevertheless, with the known closeness of Iraq, Qatar, Syria, and Turkey to the Iranian regime, leaves the UAE as the only exception in the Gulf to react. Of the suspects, while Israel denied its involvement, Saudi Arabia joined the bandwagon in calling for restraint and condemning the killing of the Nuclear Scientist. Amongst the international community even though the United Nations, European Union, Germany and Venezuela have called the killing a “criminal act” and have urged for maximum restraint; yet it is unlikely that the UN is ready to take any actions on the matter.[14] China and Pakistan also came forward to condemn the killing, however, surprisingly; India did not release any official statement condemning the issue even after a week. Twitter active Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar did not react to the killing either.

While the reason for India’s silence on the issue is unknown despite the Iranian Embassy’s call for support in New Delhi[15]; this may not be a wise move on New Delhi’s part. As the uncertainty looms over the US’ policy in the Middle East, growing and visible China’s strategic footprint in the region and Pakistan’s closeness to Iran and Turkey over the Kashmir issue, demands that India rises up to the occasion to have a solely independent policy with the region. Condemning Fakhrizadeh’s killing would not have gone against the non-prescriptive and non-interventionist Indian policy in the Middle East. A friendly gesture of this kind would only have helped the strengthening of Indo-Iranian relations. This is not the first time when India “ignored” Iran’s call for support! During April-May, that is, at the height of the pandemic, India’s health diplomacy and its campaign for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief failed to incorporate Iran in its schedule.[16] However, some relaxations at that front may be given as the health crisis domestically has been exorbitant.[17] Generally, India should not be selective in its health diplomacy especially with the Middle East when China is already building its Health Silk Route.

India must realise that a change in the US administration, the churnings in the Middle East and China’s rising clout in the region, demands it to gear up for a responsible role as New Delhi’s stakes in the region are quite high. Moreover, the already declining total trade between India and Iran by 79.4 percent during pre-pandemic times in April-November 2019 should be of major concern to New Delhi; additionally, its imports from Iran have further declined by 90.3 per cent.[18] With changing US administration, and probably the end of US sanctions on Iran will enable India and Iran to work on their trade deficits. However, any economic relationship is built on cordial political relations and that requires support in crisis times. Even though Iran has vehemently condemned India’s abrogation of Article 370 and its stance on Kashmir, India may like to break the ice by reciprocating in the times when Iran needs verbal and vocal support at the international front. This may further bolster its relations with the Islamic Republic.

Notes:

[1]“Mohsen Fakhrizadeh: Iran Scientist ‘Killed by Remote-Controlled Weapon’”, BBC, 1 December 2020, Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-55128970, Accessed on 1 December 2020.

[2] The expiration of the UN imposed Arms embargo on Iran will legalise Iran’s purchase and selling of conventional arms, missiles, helicopters and tanks. For more details, please refer to: Maziar Motamedi (2020), “Arms Embargo on Iran Expires Despite US Opposition”, Al Jazeera, 18 October, Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/10/18/arms-embargo-on-iran-expires-despite-us-opposition, Accessed on 5 December 2020.

[3] @JZarif (2020), From Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s Tweet on 27 November2020 at 8:58 PM, Available at: https://twitter.com/zarif/status/1332345633425022976?s=21, Accessed on 1 December 2020.

[4] C. Raja Mohan (2020), “India, Pakistan and Bangladesh must deal with changed geopolitical realities in West Asia”, The Indian Express, 1 December, Available at: https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/mohsen-fakhrizadeh-iranian-nuclear-scientist-assassination-india-middle-east-relations-7074505/, Accessed on 1 December 2020.

[5] Manjari Singh (2020), “China’s Great Game in the Gulf: Implications for India”, CLAWS Journal, Vol. 14, Issue 1, pp. 97-114, [Print Edition].

[6] Lara Jakes, Michael Crowley and David E. Sanger (2020), “Biden Chooses Antony Blinken, Defender of Global Alliances, as Secretary of State”, The New York Times, 22 November, Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/22/us/politics/biden-antony-blinken-secretary-of-state.html, Accessed on 5 December 2020.

[7] David E. Sanger (2020), “Explained: Assassination of Iran Scientist Could Limit Joe Biden’s Options. Was That the Goal?, The Indian Express, 5 December, Available at: https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/mohsen-fakhrizadeh-the-assassinated-iranian-nuclear-scientist-joe-biden-us-7072482/, Accessed on 5 December 2020.

[8] Oliver Holmes (2020), “Netanyahu Holds Secret Meeting with Saudi Crown Prince”, The Guardian, 23 November, Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/nov/23/benjamin-netanyahu-secret-meeting-saudi-crown-prince-mohammed-bin-salman, Accessed on 3 December 2020.

[9] Lara Jakes, Michael Crowley and David E. Sanger (2020), “Biden Chooses Antony Blinken, Defender of Global Alliances, as Secretary of State”, The New York Times, 22 November, Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/22/us/politics/biden-antony-blinken-secretary-of-state.html, Accessed on 5 December 2020.

[10] Iran was worst hit by the Pandemic in the region as the coronavirus claimed many lives including many in Iran’s upper echelon. For further detail, please refer to: Manjari Singh (2020), “The Influence of Coronavirus on Diplomatic Relations: Iran, China, Gulf Arabs, and India”, Fikra Forum, The Washington Institute, 21 May, Available at: https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/fikraforum/view/Coronavirus-Diplomacy-Trade-Iran-China-Gulf-States-India, Accessed on 5 December 2020.

[11] Kenneth Katzman (2020), “Iran: Internal Politics and U.S. Policy and Options”, Congressional Research Service, CRS Report Prepared for Members and Committee of Congress, 20 May, Available at: https://fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RL32048.pdf, Accessed on 5 December 2020.

[12] “Iran Promises a ‘Calculated, Decisive’ Response to Murder of Nuclear Scientist”, WION, New Delhi, 29 November, Available at: https://www.wionews.com/world/iran-promises-a-calculated-decisive-response-to-murder-of-nuclear-scientist-346307, Accessed on 5 December 2020.

[13] “Iran’s Parliament Advances Bill to Stop Nuclear Inspections”, The Economic Times, 1 December, Available at: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/irans-parliament-advances-bill-to-stop-nuclear-inspections/articleshow/79508739.cms, Accessed on 5 December 2020.

[14] “UN Security Council Unlikely to Act on Iran Scientist Killing: Diplomats”, NDTV, 2 December 2020, Available at: https://www.ndtv.com/world-news/un-security-council-unlikely-to-act-on-iran-scientist-mohsen-fakhrizadeh-killing-diplomats-2332862, Accessed on 5 December 2020.

[15] “Iranian Embassy Tries to Draw India’s Attention to Killing of its Top Nuclear Scientist”, The Hindustan Times, 30 November 2020, Available at: https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/iranian-embassy-tries-to-draw-india-s-attention-to-killing-of-its-top-nuclear-scientist/story-m9Q4uEVMrcnVyvc75VV9VN.html, Accessed on 5 December 2020.

[16] Atul Aneja (2020), “India’s Health Diplomacy Cannot Ignore Iran”, The Hindu, 24 March, Available at: https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/news-analysis-indias-health-diplomacy-cannot-ignore-iran/article31156361.ece, Accessed on 5 December 2020.

[17] Manjari Singh (2020), “The Influence of Coronavirus on Diplomatic Relations: Iran, China, Gulf Arabs, and India”, Fikra Forum, The Washington Institute, 21 May, Available at: https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/fikraforum/view/Coronavirus-Diplomacy-Trade-Iran-China-Gulf-States-India, Accessed on 5 December 2020.

[18] Amiti Sen (2020), “India-Iran Trade Dips 79.4 Per Cent in April-Nov; May Fall Further”, The Hindu Business Line, 7 January, Available at: https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/economy/india-iran-trade-dips-794-per-cent-in-april-nov-may-fall-further/article30505810.ece, Accessed on 5 December 2020.

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Dr. Manjari Singh is an Associate Fellow at Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) and she obtained her doctorate from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi for her thesis on Sustainable Development in Jordan: A Study of Social, Economic and Environmental Dimensions. Dr. Singh is a Ryoichi Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund (SYLFF) Fellow and is specializes in sustainable development and the Middle East. Her research papers have appeared in international journals such as Contemporary Review of the Middle East, Mediterranean Quarterly, and Migration and Development. She has co-authored Persian Gulf 2018: India’s Relations with the Region (Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan) and has co-edited Islamic Movements in the Middle East: Ideologies, Practices and Political Participation (New Delhi: Knowledge World) and Challenges to National Security: Young Scholars Perspective (New Delhi: Pentagon Press)She also serves as Assistant Editor of Contemporary Review of the Middle East (Sage Publications) and Managing Editor of CLAWS Journal (KW Publishers).