Iran In Power Struggle After Assassination of Top Nuclear Scientist

Cover by TNGO illustrator Rossella Gangi

The assassination of top Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh brought all eyes back to Iran as world powers await its retaliatory move. Fakhrizadeh led Iran’s Organisation for Defensive Innovation and Research (SPND), otherwise regarded as Iran’s nuclear weapons program, which the scientist was seen as the main propeller of for decades. Much concern has surrounded Iran’s nuclear capability, despite the state’s assurance that the program is entirely peaceful.

Following decades of global sanctions and failed negotiations designed to impede Iran’s nuclear program, a landmark 2015 deal was implemented to ease international tensions with the state and quell its nuclear proliferation. The Iran Nuclear Deal, negotiated with France, Germany, China, Russia, the US and UK, promised to lift preliminary sanctions on the condition that Iran would limit its nuclear capability and allow outsider monitoring. However, in 2018, US President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement, deeming it inadequate, and reverted to sanctioning Iran. This move re-ignited the nuclear diplomacy struggle between Iran and the US, as well as Iran and the rest of the world, as Iran reverted to expanding its nuclear capability.

Promising ‘harsh revenge’ against those responsible for Fakhrizadeh’s assassination, Iranian officials believe Israel and Iranian opposition group Mujahideen-e Khalq were behind the attack. Although, considering Iran’s contentious relationship with both the US and Saudi Arabia, their involvement is also not out of the question. The incoming Biden presidency in the US, however, is potentially granting Iran an upper hand in the continuing regional and international power struggle concerning its nuclear program.

The site of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh’s assassination
Source: Fars News Agency via AP

Israel continues to deny its involvement in Fakhrizadeh’s assassination, but Iran maintains its conviction that it was an Israeli attack. Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has repeatedly vowed that Iran’s nuclear program is dangerous and has opposed the 2015 nuclear deal since its inception. Netanyahu has therefore avidly supported Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the deal and subsequent sanctioning of Iran – a foreign policy move which Joe Biden promises to overturn once inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States. Israel would therefore have two primary motives to enact such an attack: disturb the progression of Iran’s nuclear program, at least in the short term, and disturb prospects for a re-negotiation between Biden and President Rouhani, given the timing of the attack. Killing Fakhrizadeh has the potential to significantly impact future Iranian engagement with Joe Biden because of the US’ allyship with Israel; the Western partner has consistently supported Israel’s foreign policy in the region.

A distrust of the US would also stem from the fact that Trump, like Netanyahu, has denounced Iran’s nuclear program, along with its missile program, and the supplementary nuclear deal. Trump reverted to sanctioning the Iranian regime, crippling the country’s economy. The US’ involvement in further plans to de-stabilize Iran is therefore also considered, especially considering Trump’s earlier executive order to assassinate Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in January 2020. So, as his presidency comes to an end, this assistance to Israel presents itself as a final opportunity for Donald Trump to further dismantle US-Iran relations and diminish prospects for future negotiations between Biden and Rouhani.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a party conference in Jerusalem, 2 December
Source: AP

Despite presenting a more cooperative approach to Iran, Joe Biden, like Trump, has expressed disapproval of Iran attaining nuclear weapons. However, unlike Trump, he stands firmly by the belief that reviving the 2015 nuclear deal is an effective avenue to limit Iran’s nuclear capability and maintain peaceful relations. The President elect has promised to lift sanctions against Iran once he and Rouhani re-negotiate the nuclear deal and Iran will demonstrate full compliance. Biden’s conditions for re-instating the deal include the set up of further negotiations to extend the duration of restrictions on Iran’s production of fissile material, address Iran’s ballistic missile program, and scrutinize Iran on its activities across the Middle East via proxy groups.

Iran’s President has already rejected Biden’s conditions, declaring Iran will only accept the nuclear deal in its original form. Rouhani noted how the additional terms were discussed in the drafting of the original deal and were rejected then too. Iran’s fixed, non-negotiable position and Biden’s determination to extend the terms of the deal place the two administrations at a crossroads, limiting the scope of success for a new deal.

US President Elect Joe Biden at an election rally
Source: Biden-Harris Transition

While there is still space for compromise, the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh is most likely fuelling Iran’s resolve on the nuclear deal. The assassination was an unlawful attack against the nuclear program in question, with the suspected perpetrator being an ally of the US. Despite needing the sanctions placed upon it to end, Iran is in a position of bargaining power by requiring Biden to prove he can be trusted in keeping the original terms of the deal. This is especially important for Iran considering Biden has equally promised to continue to assist Israel in defending itself against Iran. The incoming US President has admitted it will be hard to tell how much the assassination will complicate his upcoming engagements with Iran. Rouhani’s response to his proposed terms indicates he will currently have little success achieving his objectives. Iran is therefore in a position to assert its own needs, which Biden may ultimately be forced to agree with due to his own determination to reach an agreement. Rouhani’s disclosure that a previous attempt to extend the terms of the deal by the Obama administration also failed suggests this is will end in a similar scenario.

If Donald Trump had been re-elected for a second term of the US Presidency, the US and Israel would be in a more powerful position as Trump would most likely sustain sanctions, which Iran would continue to suffer the economic consequences of. However, knowing that Biden is willing to lift sanctions places Iran in a better position to make its own demands.

Saudi Arabia’s relations with Iran are also significant amid the assassination. Although the Kingdom has its separate conflicts with Iran, not exclusively concerning Iran’s nuclear program, it became affiliated with Fakhrizadeh’s killing once reports resurfaced of a meeting between Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, Benjamin Netanyahu, and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The meeting took place on 22nd November, before the 27th November assassination, in Neom. While Israeli officials confirmed the meeting between all three parties, Saudi officials denied the Prince met with Netanyahu, along with denying involvement in the attack against Iran’s nuclear scientist. Although it remains in conversations surrounding Mohsen Fakhrizadeh’s assassination, Saudi Arabia has voiced preference for the existence of a nuclear deal and has demanded that it be consulted, along with other Gulf states, on the terms of a revised deal.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and King Salman
Source: Saudi Press Agency via AP

Iran and Saudi Arabia have shared a longstanding, primarily proxy, conflict. The most recent major attack took place in September 2019, when Houthi rebels in Yemen targeted Aramco facilities in Jeddah, severely disrupting Saudi oil output. Saudi officials maintain the attack was sponsored by Iran, because of its alignment with Houthis. A contentious relationship and regional proximity to Iran suggests Saudi Arabia would need Iranian compliance on a deal that would cap the Islamic Republic’s nuclear capabilities and stabilize regional tensions. In supporting the return of a nuclear deal, Saudi Arabia demonstrates a more multilateral approach than Israel, for example, by stressing the need for regional and international cooperation on a solution. Given the disruption Fakhrizadeh’s attack has caused to the prospect of re-instating a new nuclear agreement soon, Saudi Arabia would be acting against its own national interest if it had played a role.

As with the US, Iran has also gained a position of bargaining power with Saudi Arabia. Recognising that Saudi Arabia favours the existence of a nuclear deal gives Iran an advantage to determine the terms of such a deal as it is aware regional and international players are also better off with the deal in place. Iran has also previously noted Saudi Arabia’s ambitions to develop a nuclear weapons program. It may use this again as a method to attain Saudi compliance with its desired terms. Whatever Iran sets in place would pre-determine what a a future nuclear deal may look like for a Saudi Arabian nuclear program. Granting Iran a second opportunity to resist sanctions in favour of a deal would set up a similar path for Saudi Arabia in the future.


  • Does the current transition in US presidency play a significant role in Iran’s response to Fakhrizadeh’s assassination?
  • Do you believe Joe Biden will present stronger grounds for revising the deal with his conditions or will he submit to reinstating the deal in its original form?
  • Has Iran gained an upper hand in this situation or has the attack ultimately weakened it?

Suggested Reading

Arms Control Association (2020). “Timeline of nuclear diplomacy with Iran”. Arms Control Association, December 2020.

BBC (2019). “Iran nuclear deal: Key details.” BBC News, 11 June, 2019.

Bozorgmehr, Najmeh; Srivastava, Mehul (2020). “Machine guns and a hit squad: the killing of Iran’s nuclear mastermind”. Financial Times, 29 November, 2020.

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