iran, the danger continues indefinitely

After Trump leaves, US and Israeli aggression against Iran remains
Aaron Maté, The Grayzone, Dec 4 2020

After Israel’s assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist, former UN Weapons Inspector Scott Ritter debunks the myths about Iran’s nuclear program and discusses the next phase of the US and Israeli campaign against Iran under Biden. Israel’s assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist is the latest act of aggression in the Trump-Netanyahu campaign to undermine the Iran nuclear deal. Although President-elect Joe Biden has voiced support for returning to the JCPOA, longstanding US-Israel hostility to Iranian sovereignty will continue under his watch.

‘Israel has tape of slain Iran nuke chief talking about building five warheads’
Times of Israel, Dec 4 2020

Israel intelligence managed to recruit an Iranian official close to the recently assassinated Mohsen Fakhrizadeh and recorded the nuclear scientist speaking about his efforts to produce “five warheads” on behalf of the Islamic Republic, according to a Friday report in Yediot Ahronot (Hebrew). This top-secret recording was played in 2008 by Ehud Olmert for Bush 43 during a visit by Bush to Israel and was a key element in convincing the Americans to step up efforts to combat Iran’s nuclear program, the report said. It quoted several unnamed Israeli and Middle Eastern intelligence officials, along with recollections from Ehud Barak, who was then serving as Olmert’s defense minister. It said Olmert was so concerned about safeguarding the source of the recording that he refused to play it while anyone else was in the room, including Bush’s national security adviser Stephen Hadley.

According to the Yediot report, written by Ronen Bergman, Israel had been compiling a dossier on Fakhrizadeh for nearly three decades, long discounting the scientist’s claims that he had nothing to do with any weapons program. For Israel, the recordings were the final proof that Iran’s nuclear program was not peaceful, as Tehran repeatedly claimed. Olmert was methodical in the way he revealed the material to Bush, the report said. The US president had come to Israel in May 2008 as the country marked the 60th anniversary of its founding. Olmert hosted a dinner at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem and just before dessert, Olmert, Bush, Hadley and Barak, who was defense minister at the time, headed to a side-room. It was there that Barak asked Bush if the US could supply Israel with a series of weapons it did not have in its arsenal, according to the report. Yediot said these were believed to be vertical take-off and landing aircraft, along with bunker-busting bombs. Hadley in the previous weeks had been briefing Bush about Israeli desires to carry out a strike against Iran’s nuclear program and Bush immediately understood what Barak wanted the weapons for. According to Barak, Bush responded to the request by pointing at the defense minister and saying:

This guy frightens me.

Bush then got to the point. Barak recalled the president replying:

I want you to know the official position of the US government. The US strongly opposes Israel taking action against the Iranian nuclear program. And in order not to be vague, I will tell you that the US does not intend to act either as long as I serve as president.

Seemingly expecting the negative response from Bush, Olmert decided he’d make use of the recording the next day when he was meeting the president and Hadley at his office. According to the report, Olmert asked the national security adviser to leave the room. Hadley insisted on staying, arguing that protocol required him to be present when matters of national security were being discussed. But Olmert was adamant, and Bush assured Hadley it was okay for him to be left alone with the prime minister, the report said. It quoted Olmert as telling Bush from within the closed-door meeting:

I’m going to play you something, but I ask that you not talk about it with anyone, not even with the director of the CIA.

Bush reportedly agreed to the request. Olmert pulled out a recording device, hit play and a man could be heard speaking in Persian. Olmert told Bush, according to the report:

The man speaking here is Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Fakhrizadeh is the head of the “AMAD” program, Iran’s secret military nuclear project. The one it denies exists at all.

The prime minister then revealed that Israeli intelligence services had managed to recruit an Iranian agent close to Fakhrizadeh who had been feeding Jerusalem information on the nuclear scientist for years. Olmert provided Bush with an English-language transcript of what Fakhrizadeh had said in Persian. According to the report, Fakhrizadeh could be heard giving details about the development of Iranian nuclear weapons. However, the Yediot report only quotes selected phrases, without the word nuclear. The scientist complains that the government is not providing him with sufficient funds to carry out his work. On the one hand, Fakhrizadeh says, in an apparent reference to his superiors, “they want five warheads,” but on the other, “they aren’t letting me work.” Fakhrizadeh then goes on to criticize colleagues in the defense ministry and the IRGC, according to the report.

Bush read the recording’s translation and reacted with silence. Yediot claimed the recording served as a “smoking atomic gun” for Olmert. The premier recognized that Bush would not sell Israel the weapons it was looking for, so he made a new request: full intelligence cooperation on the Iranian nuclear issue. When Bush agreed, Olmert decided to up the ante and proposed that the two carry out joint operations against Iran’s nuclear project, Yediot said. The president agreed to this as well, the report said. Senior officials in Olmert’s office at the time told Yediot the recording served as a “defining moment” in the two countries’ joint effort to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb. One apparent instance of such cooperation was the 2010 Stuxnet computer virus, which penetrated Iran’s nuclear program, taking control and sabotaging parts of its enrichment processes by speeding up its centrifuges. Up to 1k centrifuges out of 5k were eventually damaged by the virus, according to reports, setting back the nuclear program.

Yediot speculated that the Stuxnet plan, called Operation Olympic Games, was born as a result of Olmert’s revelation of the Fakhrizadeh recording to Bush. However, other reports have said that Bush gave the go-ahead for the operation as early as 2006. The recording was just one part of the trove of evidence that Israel has gathered on Fakhrizadeh and Iran’s nuclear program over the years, Yediot noted. In 2018, the Mossad spirited a huge trove of documentation out of a warehouse in Tehran, detailing Iran’s nuclear program. When Netanyahu revealed in Apr 2018 that Israel had attained the archive, which he said proved that Iran had lied about not seeking a nuclear weapons arsenal, he specified that Fakhrizadeh oversaw the program and said:

Remember that name: Fakhrizadeh.

Biden: Iran Is ‘Moving Closer’ to Nuclear Weapons, ‘Bottom Line Is We Can’t Allow It’
Haaretz, Dec 4 2020

Biden urged in an interview on Thursday a multilateral and diplomatic approach to tackling Iran’s nuclear program, and reiterated his determination to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Biden told CNN that he remains committed to the principles of the 2015 nuclear deal, before going on to criticize Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPoA in 2018. Biden, interviewed alongside Harris, also stressed the importance of a coalition in dealing with Iran. Biden argued:

The bottom line is that we can’t allow Iran to get nuclear weapons. Trump has pulled out to get something tougher, and what have they done? They’ve increased the ability for them to have nuclear material. They’re moving closer to the ability to be able to have enough material for a nuclear weapon. We cannot do this alone. And that’s why we have to be part of a larger group, dealing not only with Iran, but with Russia, with China and a whole range of other issues.

The president-elect also said it was “hard to tell how much” the recent assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh would impact any potential rapprochement with Tehran, after a senior US administration official and top Iranian officials claimed that Israel was behind the assassination earlier this week. Despite the acknowledgement it would “hard,” Biden also redoubled his commitment to end sanctions on Iran in an interview with the NYT published on Wednesday. He told the the NYT’s Thomas Friedman:

If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the US will rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations.

Biden and his national security team will seek a further round of negotiations to extend the 15-year-duration of the restrictions on Iran’s production of fissile material that could be used to make a bomb. They will also look to address Iran’s regional activities through proxy groups in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said on Thursday that it will fully comply with the 2015 deal aimed at preventing it from developing nuclear weapons if both the US and Europe honor their original commitments.

Israel’s gift to Joe Biden, 52 days before he even takes office: War with Iran
Scott Ritter,, Nov 28 2020

The assassination of Tehran’s top nuclear scientist is a ploy by Israel to compel the likely US president-elect to reject diplomacy and choose military action to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambition. Which option will he choose? Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was the shadowy father of Iran’s nuclear program; his existence, let alone his work, was barely acknowledged by Iran. An IRGC Brigadier-General, Fakhrizadeh was involved in the academic aspects of Iranian national security, eventually heading the Physics Research Center, where he masterminded the design and material acquisition in support of Iran’s uranium enrichment effort. In Apr 2018, Netanyahu named Fakhrizadeh as the head of a covert military dimension to Iran’s nuclear program, something Iran has vociferously denied. On Nov 28 2020, the 62-year-old scientist was assassinated just outside Tehran. At the time of his death, Fakhrizadeh was the head of the Research and Innovation Organization (RIO), part of the Iranian Defense Ministry. A Jun 2020 report published by the US Dept of State alleged:

Fakhrizadeh used the RIO to keep former weapons program scientists employed on weaponization and relevant dual-use technical activities, to aid in any future nuclear weapons development work in the event that a decision were made to resume such work.

This belief, when combined with Iran’s decision to cease abiding by the provisions of the landmark 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, better known as the Iran nuclear agreement) regarding the stockpiling of low-enriched uranium and the use of advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium, had the de facto effect of signing Fakhrizadeh’s death warrant. The JCPoA-imposed restrictions were designed with a one-year ‘breakout’ scenario in mind. In short, this was supposed to be the time it would take Iran to produce enough highly-enriched uranium to create a single nuclear device once the decision was made to cease adhering to restrictions on the numbers and types of centrifuges it could operate, the level of enrichment permitted, and the amount of low-enriched uranium allowed to be stockpiled.

In May 2019, one year after Trump withdrew the US from the JCPoA, Iran began pulling back from its commitments under the agreement, citing its right to do so under Articles 26 and 36 of the deal, which allow a party to the agreement to cease its obligations if another party is found to be in noncompliance. Iran maintains that the failure of Europe to live up to its economic commitments under the JCPoA constituted demonstrable noncompliance. The end result is that today the ‘breakout’ period has shrunk to a few weeks. For the Trump administration, Iran’s noncompliance with the JCPOA had placed it in a quandary. The policy of sanctions-based ‘maximum pressure’ which had been instituted since 2018 was clearly not compelling Iran to return to the negotiation table and accept a new, more restrictive nuclear deal. Having gone on record regarding its belief that Iran continued to maintain covert nuclear weapons ambitions, the Trump administration was confronted with the reality that it had, according to its own beliefs, empowered Iran to produce a nuclear weapon in a time frame that posed a direct threat to the US and its regional allies. This concern was behind recent press reports that Trump was considering military options against Iran’s nuclear program.

For Israel, the issues are even more acute. Whereas Iran’s potential acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability would pose a policy conundrum for the US, for Israel an Iranian nuclear weapon would represent an existential threat. For this reason, Israel has historically pulled few punches when it comes to confronting even the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapons capability. While much of the intelligence underpinning the US and Israeli assessments regarding the existence of a nuclear weapons program are derived from sources of questionable provenance and are not conclusive, Israel has taken an absolutist posture. It’s given credence to sources that otherwise might be consigned to the bottom drawer. In its effort to win support for this position, Israel has exaggerated, even fabricated, intelligence on Iran, undermining its credibility to such an extent that, when Israel reported that its intelligence stole a nuclear archive from Iran in early 2018, the veracity of this claim was called into question after documents previously held to have been forged were claimed to be part of the document trove. Israel’s actions against Iran’s nuclear program have been anything but passive. In 2009-2010, Israel worked with US intelligence to launch a cyberattack using the Stuxnet virus to infect Iranian centrifuge operations at Natanz. This was followed by a program of targeted assassinations which killed four Iranian nuclear scientists between 2010-2012 (a fifth attack narrowly missed killing the head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization).

Israeli intelligence is also said to be behind a series of mysterious explosions at Iranian nuclear-related facilities earlier this year which caused significant damage and disruption to Iran’s centrifuge program. While Israel has not taken responsibility for the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, his murder can logically be viewed as a continuation of Israel’s efforts to degrade Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Biden is no stranger to the active measures taken by Israel in this regard. As vice president, he sat in on critical meetings regarding the deployment of the Stuxnet virus. He was fully cognizant of the pressure being placed on Obama regarding military action against Iran, and understood the role played by the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists in ratcheting this pressure up. Jake Sullivan, who served as Biden’s NSA while he was vice-president, played a critical role in the early negotiations with Iran that made the JCPOA possible. Biden knew full well that the JCPoA was a diplomatic off-ramp from a policy that otherwise would have led to war. Biden is intimately familiar with the calculations behind the ‘breakout’ timelines, and the decision that was made to de-emphasize the concern over Iran’s alleged military interest in nuclear weapons.

The assassination of Fakhrizadeh is a calculated act on the part of Israel. His death has no real impact on Iran’s nuclear activities. A new generation of Iranian scientists has long since been educated, trained and employed in a program that is far more advanced and mature than the one Fakhrizadeh started more than 20 years ago. Psychologically his murder, carried out in broad daylight in the heart of Iran, has dealt a blow to Tehran’s leadership, once again proving that the long arm of Israeli intelligence can get to just about anyone. But its most critical impact is the effect it will have on the national security team surrounding Biden. They have been paying lip-service to the notion of rejoining the JCPoA. However, the preconditions they have attached to such an action were widely seen as deal-breakers. Iran would have to return to full compliance first, and commit to immediate follow-on negotiations on a deal that would be more restrictive. Many of Biden’s closest advisers, including Blinken and Sullivan, have indicated that Biden may have no choice but to continue the Trump policy of sanctions-based ‘maximum pressure.’ For Israel, such a policy is not acceptable, albeit an improvement over rejoining the JCPOA. From its perspective, ‘maximum pressure’ has not only failed to compel Iran to the negotiation table, but has also positioned Iran to be on the cusp of developing a nuclear weapons capability.

The assassination of Fakhrizadeh serves two main purposes. First, it hardens the resolve of Iran when it comes to any potential flexibility it might have been prepared to have with Biden regarding a resolution to the nuclear standoff, with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei directing Iranian scientists “To follow up Martyr Fakhrizadeh’s scientific and technical activities in all fields in which he was active.” The idea that Iran would seek to compromise with the US in the aftermath of Fakhrizadeh’s murder is, to put it bluntly, absurd. But the most important purpose behind the killing of Fakhrizadeh is to create a fait accompli when it comes to policy options being considered by a future Biden administration. Rejoining the JCPOA is likely a non-starter. Iran will never agree to the many preconditions sought by Biden and his advisers. Likewise, continuing Trump’s program of ‘maximum pressure’ is not a politically viable option, given the advanced state of the Iranian nuclear program and the impact this has on the all-important ‘breakout window’ that underpinned, from the US perspective, the legitimacy of the JCPoA. The same contingencies being confronted by the Trump administration regarding the possibility of US forces attacking Iran’s nuclear infrastructure will be confronted by President Biden on his first day in office. By killing Fakhrizadeh, Israel is doing its best to ensure that, for Biden, that military action is the only viable option available.

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