The killing of a top Iranian scientist on Friday could risk a major war in the region, with all signs pointing to Israel being responsible. The assassination came after a report said President Trump reviewed options to strike an Iranian nuclear site at an Oval Office meeting earlier this month.
Although officials left the meeting assuming a military strike was off the table, other options were left open. Three intelligence officials told The New York Times that Israel was responsible for killing Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. If Israel carried out the assassination, it raises questions about how much the US knew about the operation.
The Times story on Fakhrizadeh’s killing reads: “It was unclear how much the United States may have known about the operation in advance, but the two nations are the closest of allies and have long shared intelligence regarding Iran.”
US officials have yet to publicly comment about Fakhrizadeh’s killing. President Trump retweeted the Times story about the incident and retweeted two tweets from a Haaretz reporter about the killing but made no comments.
Since the story came out that said President Trump considered attacking Iran, Israel has stepped up airstrikes in Syria against what it calls Iranian-linked targets and leaked information to the press that said they are preparing for war with Iran. On the other hand, Iran is exercising caution, urging its allies in the region to avoid provoking tensions with the US.
President Trump considered attacking Iran after a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said Iran was violating more terms of the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Since the US unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, Iran has been gradually violating the deal to gain leverage for future negotiations. All the violations are easily reversible, and Iranian officials have said they can quickly come into compliance with the deal if the incoming administration lifts sanctions.
The US withdrew from the deal after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed Mossad obtained thousands of documents that showed evidence Iran was operating a secret nuclear weapons program, despite the JCPOA.
In an April 2018 briefing, Netanyahu presented his evidence and said Fakhrizadeh was leading the secret program. Fakhrizadeh had previously headed Iran’s Amad Project, a nuclear program the US and Israel claimed was a military operation. According to the IAEA and US intelligence, the Amad Project was halted in 2003.
Journalist Gareth Porter demonstrated in a report for The Grayzone that the documents Netanyahu presented were likely fabrications. For example, there was no evidence to show the documents were genuine, and they were missing markings from the relevant Iranian agencies. But Netanyahu’s presentation played its role in convincing the Trump administration to withdraw from the JCPOA.
Now, the Trump administration is planning to sanction Iran every week before Joe Biden is inaugurated on January 20th to sabotage his plan to rejoin the JCPOA. Israel could see the final days of the Trump administration as its last chance to end the JCPOA for good by provoking a military conflict.
The US has reshuffled some military assets over the past few weeks, sending a message to Iran. A Pentagon official told CNN reporter Barbara Starr on Friday that the US is deploying a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf, the USS Nimitz.
Starr said the Nimitz was being moved to the region to provide combat support and air cover while US troops are leaving Afghanistan and Iraq. “The official said the move was decided before news came of the assassination of a prominent Iranian nuclear scientist,” she said. “But the movement of the US forces is an increased deterrence message to Iran regardless the official noted.”
While Tehran has vowed to take revenge for Fakhrizadeh, Iranian officials are well aware that Israel is trying to provoke a war and will likely opt for a measured response, at least before January 20th.