Iran’s leadership reacted angrily but cautiously to the assassination. President Hassan Rouhani has said that Iran will respond in a manner and at a time of its own choosing. He blamed Israel, adding, “This brutal assassination shows that our enemies are passing through anxious weeks, weeks that they feel their pressure era is coming to an end and the global conditions are changing.”
That statement suggests that Iran will seek revenge against Israel in some other form. Iran may increase its support for Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad. It will ensure that Israel remains “the lesser Satan” in Iranian propaganda for the foreseeable future, and Israeli soft targets — such as tourists and students — could be at risk, along with Israeli officials overseas. Americans, too, may be vulnerable for their association with Israel — on top of the Trump administration’s assassination of the Iranian senior general Qassim Suleimani in January.
With temperatures running so high, the incoming Biden administration now faces a serious challenge. Mr. Biden has vowed to return to negotiations with Iran, but he and his team cannot do much more than message through the media to Iran to stay patient until the inauguration on Jan. 20 — and to the Israelis to stop their campaign of sabotage.
Meanwhile, European countries that have diplomatic relations with Iran and are still parties to the nuclear agreement can help bridge the gap until the Biden inauguration. Britain, France and Germany should seek a swift convening of the commission that monitors implementation of the Iran nuclear agreement. Their foreign ministers should act even sooner and issue a statement condemning the assassination as illegal under international law and damaging to the cause of nonproliferation. A spokesperson for the European Union’s high representative for foreign and security policy has already described the killing as a “criminal act.”
For a variety of reasons, Iran’s nuclear program has been slow moving. It began in the 1950s with the gift of knowledge from the Eisenhower administration under the “Atoms for Peace” initiative. The Johnson administration gave Iran its first small nuclear research reactor a decade later.
In the more than 60 years since Iran’s nuclear efforts began, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea have all developed bombs. Iran has not. It still has only one functioning nuclear power plant.
It would be the ultimate tragedy if Israel’s aggression now led Iran to change its calculus and go for weapons. This could spark a nuclear arms race throughout the region and ensure that the Middle East remains dysfunctional, riven by sectarian and other conflicts, its peoples’ potential for productive work stymied and its youth vulnerable to recruitment by terrorists who have struck innocent people around the world.
Barbara Slavin (@BarbaraSlavin1) directs the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.
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