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  • UCL Diplomacy Society

Iranian Uranium: Assassinations and Ballistic Missiles by Omar Khan

Were it a film; this would be the thriller of the decade. But unfortunately, this isn't fiction, and the threat of the most devastating escalation of tensions in Middle Eastern history is very real. Add to that a complex web of international alliances, terrorism, black markets, religious disputes, oil, nationalism, coronavirus, and of course enriched uranium, then to say you're playing with fire would be an understatement. A huge one. So how likely is all-out war in the Gulf? Will a new US president change anything? And what does it all have to do with the death of a physics professor?

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed on Friday travelling in a black Nissan Teana in Absard, just east of Tehran. The physicist was a crucial figure in the Iran nuclear programme with this making him the fifth Iranian scientist assassinated since 2010. Defence officials initially told us that gunmen shot Fakhrizadeh but on Monday reported that he was killed using "electronic equipment" with no on-the-ground personnel. Fars referred to a "remote-controlled machine gun", and al-Alam TV referenced a weapon "controlled by satellite". Either way, the Islamic Republic has been adamant about the identity of those responsible: Mujihideen-e-Kholq (an exiled opposition group) and Israel. Summarising his state's response, Eli Cohen, Israel's intelligence minister, said he didn't know who was behind the killing. However, it should be recalled that two years ago when Benjamin Netanyahu unveiled what he claimed were Iran's secret atomic archives, he mentioned Fakhrizadeh's name and instructed viewers to "remember that name".

2442.9. Remember that number. Project Amad, established in around 1989, was officially disbanded in 2003 though Israel has maintained that Iran continued its pursuit of nuclear weaponry. The 2015 JCPOA deal was a significant breakthrough for diplomacy: in exchange for halting its nuclear ambitions, sanctions against Iran would be lifted. Despite vocal opposition, the de-escalation in tensions was commendable. Then Trump and his "maximum pressure" arrived. The US's 2018 withdrawal exacerbated the political situation. Iran's economy has suffered notably with plummeting oil exports and the rial losing 50% of its value. Most significantly, last month the IAEA reported that the state was now in possession of 2442.9kg of enriched uranium. The limit was 202.

When Netanyahu spoke with Mohammad bin Salman in a secret, poorly-denied meeting in Riyadh last week, the old saying "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" would have undoubtedly come up in the subtext. Although the previously taboo subject of normalising relations was unfruitful, undeniably the two leaders would have discussed their strategies to oppose their common adversary. The cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, predicated on ideological differences but driven by nationalistic ambitions to expand their respective spheres of influence, has claimed victims in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Though unlikely to have been directly behind the most recent assassination, Saudi Arabia would undoubtedly benefit should the motives for it come to fruition. But what were these motives? As many worldwide reporters and experts have concurred, the apparent reasons would have been to hinder Joe Biden's Iran policy and to provoke retaliation from the Islamic Republic.

First, let us consider the latter: Hassan Rouhani has declared that his nation will not "fall into the trap" of allowing this incident to trigger all-out war. If Israel was behind it, though, why would Iranian retaliation benefit them? Well, to start, it would force more members of the international community to sympathise with them, providing more cover for their illegal actions in the West Bank. Where the Saudis' and Israelis' interests align is in ensuring the JCPOA is never resurrected, thus condemning Iran's economy. Take Yemen, for example, the world's worst humanitarian crisis. One of the many fronts in this complex conflict is that between Tehran-backed Houthi rebels and the Riyadh-backed Hadi government. Despite the myriad of British (and others') weapons sold to the Saudis, the latter's struggle to keep up with the cost of the war has often been noted. If the JCPOA is not reorganised, however, Iran's economy (already at ~42% inflation) will continue to free fall, reducing their capability to fund and supply the Houthis as well as other influence groups (e.g. Hezbollah) in other fronts of the Middle Eastern cold war.

Will Joe Biden save everyone then? The US president-elect has made it fundamentally clear: he wants to re-join the JCPOA. Unfortunately, that's easier said than done. While Biden wants the original terms of the agreement to be respected, Iran has made their position equally clear: they expect to recompensated for nearly three years of economic strife instigated by the Trump administration, and as for their enriched uranium stockpiles, Ali Asghar Soltanieh remarked that they "cannot go backwards". But the obstacles are not just in Iran. Many Americans are vehemently opposed to the so-called "Iran deal" and the Georgia election in January will determine how much power Biden has to drag those unwilling back to the negotiation table. On top of that, US allies Israel and Saudi Arabia, who raised concerns with the Obama administration back in 2015, would attempt to thwart any reconvention of the JCPOA as mentioned earlier. Analysts have already interpreted Fakhrizadeh's assassination as a message to the future Biden administration that Israel "won't go quietly" if he tries to bring the JCPOA back.

The assassination comes months after the US attack in Baghdad that killed Qasem Soleimani, leader of the Revolutionary Guard's elite Quds force, triggering Iranian attacks on US bases in Iraq. Furthermore, wider speculation of security vulnerabilities in Iran's nuclear programme, following a suspicious fire at a facility in Natanz will no doubt make it harder for nations such as Israel to resist taking advantage of the perceived weaknesses. Overall, all-out war is unlikely for multiple reasons, the most prominent being COVID-19, which has claimed thousands of victims in all involved nations and damaged all economies. However, that does not mean diplomats can dismiss this. While Iran has reportedly begun enriching uranium at a higher purity than allowed, it is nowhere near the level needed for a bomb yet. However, it still has the largest ballistic missile arsenal in the region. As Iranian MPs are looking for a more rigid nuclear stance, it seems some level of escalation is inevitable. However, with children suffering across the Middle East due to a breakdown in cooperation, all nations involved must take Biden up on his offer of a "credible path back to diplomacy."


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