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Questions over assassination of Iranian scientist

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A handout picture provided by Iran’s Defence Ministry on November 30, 2020 shows the coffin of slain top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in front of a large display depicting Fakhrizadeh next to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during the funeral ceremony in Tehran. With a funeral worthy of the Islamic Republic’s greatest “martyrs”, Tehran paid a final tribute to a scientist killed in an assassination blamed on Israel, and promised to continue his work. Fakhrizadeh died on November 27 in a hospital from his wounds after assailants targeted his card and engaged in a gunfight with his bodyguards outside Tehran, according to Iran’s defence ministry. IRANIAN DEFENCE MINISTRY / AFP

The latest in the Middle East Crisis was the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a top Iranian nuclear scientist in October 27, 2020. Whereas, the Iranian government has overtly accused Israel and the United States of America of masterminding the assassination of its revered nuclear scientist, while this accusation by Iran is ostensibly predicated on the extensive desire of the two accused countries to frustrate the Iranian nuclear programme. Although, Tel Aviv and Washington have not officially claimed responsibilities for the assassination of the Iranian nuclear scientist, who was widely described as the father of the Iranian nuclear establishment. Why was Mohsen Fakhrizadeh assassinated? Who is behind the assassination? And how has the world reacted to the assassination?

First, there are different strands to the assassination of this Iranian nuclear scientist. And, second, is the increasing suspicion of the workings of the international system, specifically, within the hegemonic control of the United Nations (UN) by Western powers. Western media, however, has often identified the Iranian physics professor as a significant figure in the “Amad Project,” which is seen as a project that has successfully pooled top Iranian scientists for a secret designing and development of atomic warheads for Iran. Anyway, some analysts have thus argued that the assassination of the university professor, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was an attempt by the hawkish Trump Administration to derail the prospect of reverting back to the hitherto rejected tripartite Iranian nuclear deal before the January 20, 2021 inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president of United States of America. Some other analysts have also argued that the Trump Administration was in the know of the assassination of the Iranian nuclear scientist as a deliberate plot to worsen U.S.-Iranian relations before Joe Biden’sascension to power. Perhaps, other analysts have also argued that Israel acted as a “mercenary” of the U.S. to fulfill the interwoven and complementary national interest of both the U.S. and Israel by systematically flagging Iranian growing sphere of influence in the Middle East.

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The European Union, however, has openly condemned the assassination of Fakhrizadeh as a “criminal act,” while it has also expressed concern over the already fragile Iranian nuclear deal following the 2018 President Trump’s unilateral withdrawal of his Administration’s official participation from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that was signed by five major powers in 2015 to control Iran’s nuclear programme. The Qatari government has also expressed concern over the assassination of the Iranian nuclear scientist as “pouring more fuel on the fire” in the regional tension. While Turkey, a desultory ally of the U.S., has also condemned the act as a “heinous assassination.” and calls for restraint.

In view of all these conspiracy theories, there is no doubt that the assassination of the Iranian nuclear scientist by foreign powers, if proven, is definitely a violation of international law. In principle, the UN prohibits any action by a sovereign state(s) that constitutes a threat to the stability of another sovereign state, including action that seeks regime change in a foreign country. Nevertheless, the UN Article 2(4) and Article 51 recognize jus ad bellum requirements for lawful resort to force only in self-defence, and not the claim for a right to preempt future attack. Interestingly, one can therefore speculate that the assassination of Fakhrizadeh is notably an “aggressive defensive defence” by whichever state actor(s). And any deterrence strategy that is preemptively catastrophic is unreasonable, inhuman, andunacceptable by the international community.

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The Iranian government’s accusation of U.S. and Israel as orchestrating the assassination of Fakhrizadeh may have also been premised on U.S. backing of Israel’s efforts toward attacking Iran in periods of perceived threat. The Iranian government may have further justified this accusation based on the serial killing of its top officials in the past, such as the assassination of four prominent Iranian nuclear scientists between 2010 and 2012, and these scientists include Masoud Alimohammadi, MajidShahriari, Darioush Rezaeinejad, and Mustafa Ahmadi Roshan. In January 3, 2020, a United States drone attack also killed the commander of the Quads Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGCs), Major General Qasem Soleimani in a bid to quell the control of Iraq by the Shi’ite majority, and to also stop Iranian backing of Shi’ite militias known as the Hashid Al-Sha’abi or Popular Mobilization Forces that are operating in Iraq. Beside, analysts have also identified other reasons for the frequent attacks on Iranian interest by its arch-enemies, which include the IRGC’s backing of the Houthis in Iran’s proxy war in Yemen against the beleaguered pro-U.S. Yemeni government; Iran’s support for Shi’ite groups in Bahrain like the al-Ashtar Brigades; Iran’s provision of funds and munitions to Hizballah in Lebanon, which traditionally hated Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian lands; and Iran’s consistent support for the Assad regime and its allied militant groups known as the Shi’ite Hazara in the Syrian War. Understandably, the network of all these militias, including their connection with the IRGC has been designated “terrorist.”

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It is, thus, instructive to note that the behaviours of state actors within the international system are guided by international laws. These international laws, particularly the ones that are regarded as public international laws, are based on the enormous mass of treaty-based specific regulations, such as what David Robertson described as “the right to go to war (see just war), how citizens of neutral countries should be treated, the laws against genocide, and the code for treating prisoners of war, as well as the regulations on international air traffic control, the law of the sea, extradition of criminals and so on.”And all of these public international laws are clearly spelt out in UN Charter, which is binding on all state actors that have voluntarily acceded to the United Nations Charter.

Technically, the overriding principle of public international laws, according to Hugo Grotius (1583–1645), is pactasuntservanda (promises must be kept) to make the international community less chaotic for our own survival.

Nevertheless, state actors have tended to advance their national interest and sovereignty in violation of these public international laws, which sometimes, but not always for all countries, has generated the imposition of sanctions and embargoes. Anyway, Iran is a quintessential victim of these punitive measuresas it has long suffered various economy-crippling sanctions and arms embargoes based on its strong desire for uranium enrichment, which it claims to be at industrial benchmark, and not for nuclear weaponization. The claim of peaceful enrichment of uranium by the Iranian government has thus been refuted by global powers, including Israel, who fears that Iranian nuclear establishment is an attempt to counter balance its status of regional super power.

To be sure, Israel remains the only nuclear power in the Middle East, but, even more, the possession of nukes clearly establishes it as a regional super power (i.e. a definite description of regional uni-polar balance of power).

Any attempt by any state actor to repudiate Israeli hegemony in the region will violently be resisted, and this may, ultimately, include putting its secret agency, i.e. Mossad, in action, or sometimes, using Kidon, the hit squad (the elite group of expert assassins) of Mossad, to go after any foreign individual or leader who may be considered as a threat to Israeli national interest of permanent presence in the Middle East region.

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Historically, Israel is synonymous with violating international treaties and laws, and also assassinating individuals who are perceived to be working against Israelinational interest. The tasks of assassinating enemy individuals is usually assigned to Mossad. In terms of subterranean operations, experts have adjudged Mossad as the most efficient spy agency in the world, and it is technically rated above the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the U.S.; the Sluzhbavneshneyrazvedki Rossiyskoy Federatsii (SVR RF) in Russia; Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, sometimes called MI6) in Britain; Service Documentation Exterieure Contre Espionage (SDECE) in France; Bundes Nachristen Dienst (BND) in Germany; Ministry of State Security (MSS) or Guoanbu in China, and so on. Although there have also been calls for legislative control over these spy agencies to minimize the danger of executive action in secret.

We can as well evaluate the historical trajectory of Israel’s involvement in the execution of dangerous action in secret cum its violation of international treaties and laws. This will certainly involvea brief background to the Middle East crisis as it captures the provocation of the Arab World after the Israeli government continues to violate a significant part of “Resolution 242,” which is a UN brokered peace treaty that mandated Israel to rezone back to the pre 1967 Arab-Israeli War border. In 1967, Israel launched a preemptive attack on four Arab nations and took control of their lands in the “Six-Day War,” and these include the annexation of Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza strip from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria, the whole of Jerusalem, which had earlier been partitioned between Palestinian and Israeli control in 1948, and the West Bank from Jordan. After the annexation of these Arab lands, several Arab’s resistant movements (Fadayeen), which have earlier existed changed their tactics from peaceful negotiation to armed struggle, and these include Fatah, formerly known as the Palestinian National Liberation Movement, was founded by Yasser Arafat, Salah Khalaf, Khalil al-Wazir, and Khaled Yasbruti in 1959; the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) founded by the Arab League in 1964; and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a Marxist-Leninist organization founded by George Habash in 1967. Other post-war groups also emerged such as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad founded in 1981 by Fathi Shaqaqi and Abd Al Aziz Ada; and Hamas, founded in 1987 by Ahmed Yassin, while they all pursue the de-occupation of Palestinian lands and to achieve a dignify living for millions of displaced Palestinians. Consequently, many of the leaders and sympathizers of these resistant groups subsequently became victims of “targeted assassination,” and Mossad as the executor.

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Similar to the assassination of Fakhrizadeh, an Egyptian nuclear scientist and a lecturer at Alexandria University, Yehia El-Mashad, was executed by Mossad in June 13, 1980. It was reported that the Egyptian nuclear scientist was assassinated in his room at the Meridian Hotel, Paris in an operation code-named “Sphinx”. It was also reported that Mossad was behind the assassination of a Brazilian Air Force lieutenant Colonel, Jose Alberto Albanodo Amarante, in São Paulo in September, 1981 to prevent Brazil from becoming a nuclear state. Furthermore, other victims of Mossad’s targeted assassination were Ghassan Kanafani, a Palestinian writer and a top official of PFLA was assassinated in Beirut, Lebanon in July 8, 1972; Mahmoud Hamshari, a senior PLO official was assassinated in Paris, France in December 8, 1972; Hussein Al Basher, a senior Fatah official was assassinated in Nicosia, Cyprus in January 24, 1973; Zaiad Muchasi, a senior Fatah representative to Cypruswas assassinated in Athens, Greece in April 28, 1973; Wadie Haddad, a PLFP commanderwas assassinated in East Berlin, Germany in March 27, 1978; Mamoun Meraish, who was a senior PLO official was assassinated in Athens in August 21, 1983; Abu Jihad, who was the second in command to Yasser Arafat was assassinated in Tunis in April 16, 1988; Fathi Shaqaqi, who was the head of Palestinian Islamic Jihad was assassinatedin Sliema, Malta in October 26, 1995; while many others were also killed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the Israeli Air Force.

In general, targeted assassination should be seen as a condemnable act, outdated, and uncivilized, explicitly, in the realm of international relations. Targeted assassination, as well, is correctly a signpost of justifying “might is right,” and its reverse, which is “right is might” reminds me of the former Secretary-General of the UN between 1997 and 2006, the late Kofi Annan, and his consistent calls for rational diplomacy in preventing and resolving deadly conflict. A rational diplomacy should therefore define the current scope of the Middle East crisis by looking back to the two-state solution, which started to gain momentum after signing the Oslo Peace Accord in 1993 that granted semi-autonomy to Palestine.

Sule is Ph.D. student, Department of Public Administration, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife.

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