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The Assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist

On the 27th of November 2020, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s top nuclear scientist, was assassinated near Tehran. Iran’s government officials are blaming Israel for the attack; however, there is no definitive proof as Israel claims not to be involved. A much broader international context is lurking behind the assassination.

Shrouded in secrecy, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was considered one of the masterminds behind Iran’s nuclear program. While many international actors call to ease the tension in the region caused by the assassination, Iran’s officials ask for revenge. The potential to destabilize the region is evident; however, we stand to witness in which manner will Iran respond. On one end, a forceful retaliation against suspected Israel would not enable Iran to fulfill its foreign policy objective of lifting sanctions. On the other end, an enhanced diplomatic activity directed towards a new international agreement on its nuclear program would be a better option. Is Iran going to retaliate or simply use the threat of retaliation as a diplomatic leverage?

In the shadow of this event is the uncertain future of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), often regarded as the “Iran nuclear deal”. The aim of this deal was to limit Iran’s ability to produce and effectively use nuclear energy for a set period of time while, in return, some international sanctions on Iran would be lifted. Viewing it as one-sided and uncertain, the Trump administration withdrew from the deal in 2018, leaving the sanctions in place.

Concerning the current events, Iran has resumed its uranium enrichment program and put pressure on the US to lift the sanctions that have been crippling Iran’s economy for years. Iran wants to be a top priority for the future Biden administration. Recently enacting a new law to resume enriching uranium to a level of 20 percent (JCPOA allowed only 4 percent) shows Iran’s willingness to put more pressure on the US. Despite the continuous statements that enriching uranium is purely directed towards peaceful means, the US and much of the world remain doubtful. A new framework for regulating this matter is necessary.

Many speculate that the Trump administration’s possible involvement in the circumstances surrounding the assassination of Fakhrizadeh is an effort to further strengthen the alliance with Israel. On the domestic scene, it aims to force the next administration to deal with a much bigger problem than it was weeks ago. If true, such reasoning is only to be considered one in a long line of biased actions of the Trump administration’s foreign policy.

Moving past speculations and theories, the future Biden administration is likely to reconstruct the framework of JCPOA. Still, the assassination of Fakhrizadeh presents evident uncertainty as Iran is now unlikely to return to the negotiation table unless given a clear guarantee that sanctions would be eventually lifted.