Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2020.12.15

Wiser heads must prevail after killing of top Iranian nuclear scientist

the japan times on December 2 , 2020

International Politics/Diplomacy Middle East

Last week, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a prominent Iranian nuclear scientist, was reportedly ambushed and killed outside Tehran by “a highly trained hit squad.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was quick to blame Israel, describing the act as an indication of “desperate warmongering of perpetrators.”

As a former diplomat in Japan’s foreign service, I don’t really believe in conspiracy theories. That said, however, an exception could be made this time.

As Washington and Jerusalem have kept silent, at least officially, the obvious questions remain unanswered. Who was behind the attack? Why did they do it? Will Iran retaliate? How will the United States react? What’s more, what should Japan do?

Who is the perpetrator?

By all accounts, it’s apparent that the act was executed by a group of highly skilled professionals. An operation involving 12 assassins and 50 logistical members simply can’t be carried out by a group of amateurs.

The Washington Post had reported that “there’s already an expert consensus ? confirmed by a senior U.S. official ? that Israel was behind the assassination,” although Jerusalem will never officially admit to being involved.

If Israel was in fact behind the plot, the next question is why did they act now?

Why did they act now?

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was considered the “father of Iran’s nuclear program.” At first glance, some might think that the perpetrators killed Fakhrizade to slow ? if not stop ? Tehran’s nuclear weapons development by sending a symbolic message. Iranian scientists, however, must be capable of making nuclear weapons without Fakhrizadeh by now.

Here’s a different take: that the clandestine operation was conducted in the hope that Tehran would overreact to the killing. And that retaliation by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard against Israeli or American units in the Middle East would provide a pretext to attack Iran.

Will Iran retaliate?

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said his “first priority” after the killing was the “definitive punishment of the perpetrators and those who ordered it.” Although Khamenei had to say it, in his capacity as supreme leader, it’s hard to imagine that he would immediately order a massive retaliatory attack against Israel.

Khamenei is smart enough to know that the killing of Fakhrizadeh was nothing but a provocation. Jerusalem, probably together with some in the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump and others in the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf region, was waiting for a last-minute golden opportunity to kill and nullify the Iran nuclear deal for good.

How will the United States react?

This all depends on the timing of Iran’s next step, and who the U.S. president is at that very juncture.

If Tehran retaliates militarily before Donald Trump leaves the White House, the outgoing president could be tempted to act on the advice of his close advisers to bomb and destroy some or all of the known nuclear facilities in Iran.

On the contrary, if the U.S. president is Joe Biden, Khamenei may think twice. As former CIA Director John Brennan wisely tweeted, “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.”

What should Japan do next?

In June 2006, less than a year after I left the Japanese government, I was stunned to learn that China, Russia and the United States joined three European countries ? namely, the United Kingdom, France and Germany ? after negotiating with Iran since 2003, to propose comprehensive negotiations with Tehran.

That was the beginning of the so-called P5+1 framework, the preliminary negotiations that culminated in the Iran nuclear deal or, more precisely, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreement with Iran.

It was even more stunning because Japan was not a party to the talks.

Why was Germany involved? The probable reason is because Germany was a key trading partner of Iran and, at that time, Iran’s nuclear program relied on German technology.

Germany’s involvement in the negotiations is understandable. What I am advocating is that it is time for Japan to also be involved in future nuclear negotiations with Iran and to possibly help revise the existing deal, which will require more international monitoring and surveillance.

Japan is also a key trading partner of Iran. Last year, then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited and met with the supreme leader of Iran, whom no other Western leaders have recently held talks with. Tokyo was also one of the key players in the multilateral negotiations in the Oslo process for the peace process in the 1990s.

Those days, however, are gone ? but not gone forever.

Iran falls under the Free and Open Indo-Pacific region, and Japan’s stake and interests lie there. Japan may not be a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, but it remains a viable candidate to become the seventh member of the nuclear talks aimed at stabilizing the gulf region.