Brief # 100 Foreign Policy

The Assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh

By Will Solomon

December 8,2020 

Policy Summary:

On November 27, leading Iranian nuclear scientist and IRGC General Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was assassinated in the city of Absard, outside Tehran. Details of the assassination are not entirely clear, but the act was almost certainly carried out by Israel, likely with US (and possibly Saudi) foreknowledge. The killing itself may have been done by remote-controlled device. This is the latest, and most high-profile, in a years-long string of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists.

While Iran has not, as of this writing, militarily retaliated, that may well change. The immediate response in Iran has been to further weaken the “moderate” position in the country; the Iranian Parliament voted shortly after the attack to suspend cooperation with IAEA inspectors unless sanctions are lifted. The medium and longer-term effects of this assassination remain to be seen.


While perhaps not quite as brazen as the January murder of Iranian General Qassem Suleimani, this latest killing marks a serious escalation of the diplomatic and low-level hot war between Iran (and its regional allies), and the United States, Israel, and the Saudi Gulf monarchies. It is almost certain that an act this inflammatory would not be carried out without US assent, and there is speculation that such assent was given during Pompeo’s recent visit to the region, which occurred just before the attack.

Fakhrizadeh’s assassination serves several overlapping purposes. Clearly, the attack is functionally an effort to destabilize potential diplomacy—or detente—with Iran as a new administration appears to be coming into power in the United States. Iran’s moderates will be increasingly marginalized as calls for retaliation and hostility toward the West grow. Given the brutal American treatment of Iran over the last four years—and frankly, much longer—such a response can hardly be unexpected.

On some level, the assassination was done simply because its perpetrators perceived an opportunity. If indeed carried out by Israel, the decision may have been made with the expectation that a Biden administration might withdraw some of the carte blanche/anything goes provided by the Trump administration. (Whether that is correct is up for debate). But Israel has consistently acted with a high degree of impunity towards Iran and others, with the US providing cover, and this particular act fits the pattern. In any event, the Israelis are certainly aware that the Iranians are already quite marginalized in the region—in other words, Iran has few good options for retaliation.

In the event diplomacy still remains possible, Biden must take concrete steps towards pursuing serious de-escalation with Iran. This would mean offering concessions, above all the removal of sanctions, a step which is more than warranted, given the United States’ reneging on the 2015 JCPOA.

While Trump and his administration have consistently demonstrated extreme hawkishness towards Iran, Biden and his advisors are no doves, and there remains a strong bipartisan current in this country for military action—or something very close to it—against Iran. Assuming they come into power, Biden and his administration must be pressured to avoid a militaristic approach and pursue meaningful diplomacy with Iran.

Engagement  Resources: — “We are Post-9/11 service members and veterans organizing to end a foreign policy of permanent war and the use of military weapons, tactics, and values in communities across the country.” — “For over 39 years Ploughshares Fund has supported the most effective people and organizations in the world to reduce and eventually eliminate the dangers posed by nuclear weapons.” — “The Council for a Livable World promotes policies to reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons and to minimize the risk of war through lobbying and by helping elect and support Members of Congress who share our goals. For more than 50 years, the Council for a Livable World has been advocating for a more principled approach to U.S. national security and foreign policy.”

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