Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown: Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L), Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz (R)
In his very first reaction on the killing of the Iranian nuclear scientist and Deputy Defense Minister Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh last Friday, President Hassan Rouhani singled out Israel as the culprit. Not Saudi Arabia, not the UAE — not even the US, but Israel alone. Rouhani is a veteran politician who knew of course the full import of what he did — that he was single-mindedly fixing the target for Iran’s retaliation.
In a very nuanced statement, Rouhani added that revenge is best served cold — in this case, after January 20 when Israel’s mentors and accomplices in the Beltway will retire.
Rouhani would have made such explosive remarks only with credible intelligence inputs. Therefore, what emerges is that Iran’s intelligence is closing in on the Israeli agents already.
Following Rouhani’s remarks, the spokesman of the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission Abolfazl Amouyee, an influential politician, has pointed finger at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s inspectors. “We are sensitive towards the espionage of the IAEA inspectors,” he said.
Other reports from Tehran simultaneously leaked the information that Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, had gained access to Fakhrizadeh’s name via an IAEA list which referred to him as a senior scientist of Iran’s Defense Ministry’s Physics Research Center.
Tehran may now tighten the IAEA’s access to Iran’s nuclear facilities, reducing its commitments to the absolute minimum required under the safeguards protocol. Significantly, Iran’s first move on the diplomatic plane has been a petition to the UN Security Council, which is the controlling body of the IAEA.
Iran has alleged in the past on several occasions that western agents posing as IAEA inspectors were misusing the access to its nuclear sites. But Iran was damned either way — if it denied access to the IAEA inspectors, that would lead to a malign campaign that Iran has something to hide, but if it continued to acquiesce, that would risk national security. Fakhrizadeh’s killing is a telling evidence of Iran’s predicament.
Ever since the sudden death of the former IAEA director-general Yukiya Amano in obscure circumstances — as mysterious as the death of Yasser Arafat — Iran has a problem on its hands.
Amano was a thoroughbred professional and a man of integrity who refused to succumb to the pressure from Washington to manufacture biased reports against Iran that would provide propaganda stuff for the US and Israel.
Amano’s successor Rafael Grossi, an Argentinian diplomat, does not enjoy his predecessor’s reputation. Given the IAEA’s sensitivity, the Americans insist on having a weighty say in the choice of the organisation’s director-general.
Amano was President Obama’s choice in 2009. But Grossi was appointed last December even as the Trump administration was pressing he pedal on an all-government, maximum pressure policy towards Iran. Iran is stuck with Grossi for some time to come, as the IAEA bosses generally tend to have extended tenures.
According to Fars news agency which is linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, “Early in 2018, the Israeli sources had acknowledged that Mossad had tried to assassinate an Iranian nuclear scientist, but its operation failed.”
Interestingly, at a press conference in April 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did mention Fakhrizadeh all but alluding that the scientist was in the Mossad’s crosshairs — “Remember that name,” he insisted.
Without doubt, Israel’s Mossad couldn’t have mounted such a major operation without approval from the highest level of government — at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s level.
What could be Netanyahu’s calculations in giving the green signal for the killing of Iran’s deputy defence minister? The narrative is that Israel acted with an eye on the transition in the White House with just about seven weeks left for President Trump to step down and taking into account the big uncertainties about the Joe Biden presidency’s Middle East policies.
Certainly, it is a plausible explanation. The fact of the matter is that Iran successfully pushed back the Trump administration’s maximum pressure policy.
There is no discernible change in Iran’s regional policies; Iran has resumed enrichment activities using more advanced centrifuges; the “breakout time” is two months today as compared to one year; and, most important, Iran has point blank refused to negotiate with the Trump administration.
Now, take a look at the famous 12-point charter of demands on Iran presented by secretary of state Mike Pompeo at a press conference in May 2018. To be sure, Iran punctured Pompeo’s vanity.
Pompeo, an ex-CIA director himself, would have been in the loop regarding the Mossad operation in Tehran, which was staged exactly a week after his recent extended stay in Israel.
However, lest it gets overlooked in the geopolitical narrative, Netanyahu is also deep down a calculating, ruthless politician. The noted Israeli political commentator Yoav Krakovsky once wrote, “Time after time, Netanyahu proves that he’s the last politician (standing). He’s the one that knows how to play the game, to control the narrative —and defeat all his rivals.”
For Netanyahu, the number one priority today is not about doing a favour to Trump or Pompeo or to complicate Biden’s Middle Eastern agenda — much as these considerations could be relevant. He is also smart enough to have anticipated that the chances of Iran walking into a trap and unwittingly hand down the casus belli for a destructive war are virtually nil.
Put differently, the missing link here is that Netanyahu’s obsessive preoccupation today is to somehow scuttle the trial due to begin shortly on the corruption charges against him and wife Sara that may well result in their conviction. Reports keep appearing that Netanyahu may call for fresh elections to tighten his grip on the levers of power and claim immunity from prosecution.
Traditionally, Netanyahu’s trump card in domestic politics is his proximity to the incumbent US president and his ability to manipulate American policies to serve Israeli interests. But that halo is unsustainable under the Biden presidency.
This is where the killing of Fakhrizadeh can help Netanyahu. Netanyahu can claim decisive leadership, which would mitigate to an extent a terrible patch in his political career when due to a combination of circumstances — especially, his mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic — his political standing has touched a nadir.
Israel is terrific in media management. It has overnight enshrined Fakhrizadeh as Iran’s Robert Oppenheimer (who is credited with being the “father of the atomic bomb” in the Manhattan Project, the World War II undertaking that developed the first nuclear weapons for America.)
Gideon Levy, prominent Israeli columnist at Haaretz newspaper wrote yesterday, “Alongside drip irrigation and cherry tomatoes, there are few areas in which Israel takes more pride than what it calls “targeted killings,” which are in fact acts of murder by the state.” That is a fair assessment of the state of Israel today.
But how many Israeli prime ministers can claim the murder of Iran’s Oppenheimer? Never mind the baloney that Iran’s nuclear programme, which has no dearth of talented scientists, would pack up now. The myth will linger on that Netanyahu buried Iran’s nuclear programme.
The Israeli far-right will root for Netanyahu. Clearly, the indefatigable defender of Israel, is cementing his political base, as he plots to delink from arch rival Benny Gantz whom fate thrusted upon him six months ago as his improbable coalition partner.