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Israel headed for elections/ Iranian scientist assassinated

Dec 4, 2020 | AIJAC staff

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Update from AIJAC

12/20 #01

Israel appears very likely headed for elections, the fourth in two years, after the Knesset passed a preliminary reading of a bill to dissolve itself on Wednesday. This Update looks at how this happened and what happens now.

In addition, it focusses on the meaning and implications of the assassination of the chief scientist of Iran’s nuclear program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, last week. The Iranian regime has blamed Israel for the killing.

We lead with a discussion of the Israel situation and why the governing unity coalition, established in April, is collapsing now, penned by top Israeli journalist Shmuel Rosner. What is below actually combines two articles he wrote on the subject a couple of days apart, both written before the formal Knesset vote to dissolve itself was held on Wednesday. Rosner not only explores the motivation for voting to dissolve his own government by Defence Minister and Alternative Prime Minister Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party, but also looks at other complexities, such as the timetable for a new election, and the likelihood of a split in the Joint List, a predominantly Arab alliance of small parties which currently has a healthy 15 Knesset seats. For Rosner’s valuable analysis, CLICK HERE.

Next up, US expert Andrea Stricker looks at the bigger picture behind the Fakhrizadeh assassination, in terms of Iran’s larger nuclear program. She documents how, as the Iranian nuclear archives seized by Israel have revealed, Fakhrizadeh not only ran Project Amad, Iran’s main nuclear weapons program until 2003, but was in charge of making sure this work continued clandestinely after Amad was officially disbanded. Stricker suggests that, while the nuclear program will feel his loss, this will not stymie continuing progress, and the international community needs to demand full disclosure and cessation of the Iranian military nuclear program that Fakhrizadeh led for so long. For Stricker’s knowledgeable discussion, CLICK HERE.

Finally, we offer a view of the Fakhrizadeh assassination from Col. Richard Kemp, a former senior British army commander turned military affairs analyst. Kemp strongly takes issue with those, such as some European spokespeople and former CIA director John Brennan, who claim that the killing of Fakhrizadeh was illegal and/or immoral and/or counterproductive. He makes a strong argument that the insistence of these critics that Iran can be contained by appeasement, negotiation and return to the flawed JCPOA nuclear deal rests on a misunderstanding of the nature of the Iranian regime, and risks great bloodshed in the future. For Kemp’s argument in full,  CLICK HERE.

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Israel’s Political Turmoil: Still Not Too Late for Compromise

Shmuel Rosner

Jewish Journal, Dec. 2, 2020

 

Israel has a dysfunctional government, and this has been the situation for quite some time. If  — as some foreign reports contend — Israel had a hand in ending the illustrious career of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the leading Iranian nuclear scientist, I’d be surprised. How can the Israeli government simultaneously be so incompetent and so competent? How can a prime minister and a defense minister who can barely communicate execute such complicated operation together?

So maybe the Iran assassination wasn’t Israel’s doing. Or maybe our government is not as useless as we think. Or maybe we live in a complicated world in which institutions can be both infuriating and admirable at the same time.

But Wednesday, December 2, the leaders of the Blue and White Party will face a dilemma. The decision they have to make is to be (in the government), or not to be (in the government, and maybe at all). Because on Wednesday, a vote to have a new election will either pass or fail. And the fate of that vote is up to them.

[An Update: on Tuesday evening, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz informed the public that the party is going to vote for early election. Note that Wednesday’s vote is a preliminary vote, and not yet the final word.]

If you were on the moon for the last two years, here is Blue and White’s dilemma in a nutshell: two years ago, the party was formed to challenge Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Likud coalitions. For three elections within a year, the party almost made it to the top but could not pull together a coalition. So it joined Netanyahu’s coalition, then split, then found itself as the tail of the big dog. Its leader, Benny Gantz, made a deal with Netanyahu that will let him be the prime minister next fall. But he knows — everyone knows — that the coalition will not survive until then and that Netanyahu has no intention of letting him have the job. The leaders of Blue and White have two basic options: to end their misery now, or let Netanyahu pick a later date for elections, probably next March.

What would you do?

Here are the arguments for both options.

So, what would you do? Here are a few technical things to consider:

If the vote for new elections doesn’t pass, and Blue and White votes against it, they can’t propose such a bill for a few weeks.

If it does pass, it is not yet final. A preliminary vote only means that a committee will begin discuss the terms and possible dates for new election, and the committee is one controlled by Blue and White. So maybe there’s a third option: vote for an election to demonstrate seriousness, then slow things down to see how Netanyahu responds.

If by the end of March, Blue and White refuses to pass a budget for 2020 (because a budget for 2021 isn’t completed) the government will fall. So Blue and White will have another option to initiate an exit in about a month.

But a compromise that lets Netanyahu have a 2020 budget and keep his government intact will mean that the prime minister could still make sure that the 2021 budget doesn’t pass by March, thus ending his coalition at the latest possible date that does not guarantee Gantz the coveted “rotation” of prime minister. If a 2021 budget doesn’t pass by March, the government will face a June election instead of a March election.

 

Two days ago, I wrote a longer article on the Blue and White party and why they decided to vote against the government in favor of new elections. This piece is more of an update, as the vote is today, and its aftermath begins tomorrow.

The Vote

The Knesset is voting today on a bill that calls for new elections. This is a preliminary vote. A Knesset committee has to debate it and set a date for the next election. This means that there is still time to prevent new elections. It also means that we do not yet know when the election is going to happen. It can occur between 90 days and half a year after the final vote (March to June).

The Timetable

The Knesset can decide on a date more convenient for everyone or wait until the end of December. If by the end of December the 2020 budget does not pass (Blue and White are not likely to vote for it if Prime Minister Netanyahu doesn’t give them something big in return), the Knesset automatically dissolves, and a new election will be scheduled for March 23.

The Politics

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz made an aggressive speech on Tuesday but did not close the door on compromise. This will not be easy to achieve, as Gantz wants Netanyahu to fix any loophole that can let Netanyahu dismantle the government before Gantz is made prime minister in the pre-agreed-upon rotation. No one assumes that Netanyahu is ready to do such a thing. Either Netanyahu or Gantz must accept a compromise that is less than ideal, and at this point, they seem not to be in a mood for that.

The Joint List

The most interesting development today is a decision made by the Islamic faction Raam not to vote for a new election. The unlikely political romance between the head of Raam, Mansour Abbas, and Netanyahu has been the talk of the town for quite some time. Abbas’ strategy, as an Arab Knesset member, is as follows: “most of the time, the Arab parties automatically are part of the Left… this approach is mistaken, and … we need to reposition ourselves toward the entire Israeli political spectrum.” Abbas’ decision has one certain outcome and one less likely outcome: The likely outcome is the end of the Arab Joint List because Abbas will run separately. The unlikely outcome is for Netanyahu to find 61 Knesset members that agree to oppose a new election. Abbas does not have enough votes to get Netanyahu there, but he does get him closer to such a goal. Netanyahu needs three to four more votes.

The Crucial Matter

Israel is about to have a fourth election in two years. This is all because of one man — Netanyahu. Love him or hate him, it is clear that had he not been there, politics would be simpler.

 


Fakhrizadeh Assassination Underscores Iran’s Refusal to Come Clean About Nuclear Weapons Activities

Andrea Stricker

Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Dec. 3, 2020


Assassinated Iranian nuclear scientist, and Islamic Revolutionary Guards Brigadier General, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh

The assassination last week of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh eliminated the leading source of institutional knowledge about the Tehran regime’s once-flourishing nuclear weapons program. His death is a stark reminder that the UN nuclear monitor, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), still has not learned the true extent and current status of the program Fakhrizadeh administered for more than two decades. The incoming U.S. administration should demand that Iran fully cooperate with the IAEA and disclose and halt its military nuclear activities as a prerequisite for sanctions relief.

The IAEA reported in 2011 that Fakhrizadeh, a physicist and Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps brigadier general, headed Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the Amad Plan, from the late 1990s until 2003. Fakhrizadeh had previously worked at the Physics Research Center and co-located Institute of Applied Physics, which from the late 1980s to the late 1990s conducted foundational research and procurement before Tehran streamlined the center’s efforts to focus on nuclear weapons production.

After the formal suspension of the Amad Plan in 2003, Fakhrizadeh ran successor entities that assumed many of Amad’s responsibilities.

Under the Amad Plan, Fakhrizadeh oversaw a vast enterprise devoted to producing fissile material for the Islamic Republic’s five initially planned nuclear weapons, as well as weaponizing and testing the nuclear devices and integrating warheads onto a deliverable missile. Much of what is known about the Amad Plan came to light only after Israel’s 2018 seizure from a Tehran warehouse of a massive set of files detailing Iran’s nuclear weapons work through 2003 and what the regime intended the Amad Plan to become thereafter.

The files from the Tehran archive indicate that following revelations in 2002 of Iran’s undeclared nuclear sites and activities and the ensuing international scrutiny, Iranian officials sought to hide progress from IAEA inspectors while enabling further advances. They no doubt also sought to head off any knowledge of their activities by the United States or Israel, which they feared might confront the regime militarily.

According to archive documents translated by the Institute for Science and International Security, from August until September 2003, Iranian officials who were part of “Project 110” – the nuclear warhead development effort – held a series of meetings during which they decided to break the program into overt and covert parts.

The officials decided that projects with undeniable military applications would continue covertly at defense entities, while those with plausible civilian applications would be more openly dispersed to academic research centers and universities. The combined effort would maintain and pursue progress on three key capabilities: producing a testable nuclear device, integrating it onto a nuclear warhead, and fitting that warhead onto a Shahab-3 missile.

Fakhrizadeh himself authored a October 25, 2003, memorandum in which he explained how Iran would hide and disguise – but continue – its sensitive activities. Fakhrizadeh explained, “The general aim is to announce the closure of Project Amad” and maintain “special activities … under the title of scientific [know-how] development.”

Another document from the archive said covert projects would have a “secret structure and goals” and leave “no identifiable traces.” A key consideration was whether the activities could result in contamination of research sites via nuclear material. Meanwhile, for overt projects, officials “proposed to establish two university centers” and to draw on the existing Pardis Tehran Malek Ashtar University of Technology (MUT). The centers would “not be linked with [Project] 110,” but administrators would maintain deep coordination with those leading the military efforts.’


The Iranian nuclear archives captured by Israel in 2018 contains a memorandum from Fakhrizadeh himself explaining how Iran would hide and disguise – but continue – its sensitive nuclear activities.

In public, regime leaders told a very different story. On October 16, 2003, Hassan Rouhani, then-national security advisor and Iran’s current president, pledged to the IAEA that Iran would “provide the Agency, in the course of the following week, with a full disclosure of Iran’s past and present nuclear activities” and enact a “policy of full transparency.” Iran also committed in an agreement with Germany, Britain, and France to temporarily suspend enrichment and reprocessing efforts.

In the following years, Iran cooperated sporadically with the IAEA but also razed project sites and covered up evidence.

The U.S. intelligence community and the IAEA struggled to accurately characterize Iran’s opaque ongoing activities. In 2007, the UN Security Council sanctioned Fakhrizadeh under Resolution 1747, and the United States imposed its own sanctions on him in 2008.

According to the IAEA, Fakhrizadeh nonetheless went on to head all entities that served as de facto successors of the Amad Plan. From 2005 to 2008, Fakhrizadeh led the Section for Advanced Development Applications and Technologies (SADAT). Next, he led the MUT from 2009 to 2010. Finally, he ran the Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research (also known as SPND, its Persian acronym) from its founding in 2011 until his death.

Periodically, documents leaked that showed Fakhrizadeh at the helm of the covert and overt nuclear programs’ secretive, ongoing efforts. A 2005 SADAT document showed Fakhrizadeh addressing 12 heads of various centers that Iran maintained. A 2008 IAEA briefing discussed how Fakhrizadeh advised the centers on how to communicate safely, in particular by not using names. Allegedly, the scientist was also present at North Korea’s 2013 nuclear test.

SPND, where Fakhrizadeh served until last week, maintained Tehran’s latent capability to build nuclear weapons. The Obama administration sanctioned SPND in 2014, just prior to concluding the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The Obama State Department described SPND as an entity that provided “support to illicit Iranian nuclear activities.” It noted that Fakhrizadeh “for many years has managed activities useful in the development of a nuclear explosive device” and that “SPND took over some of the activities related to Iran’s undeclared nuclear program.”

While negotiating the 2015 nuclear deal, the Obama administration insisted Iran would have to come clean about its nuclear weapons program before any agreement took effect. Secretary of State John Kerry told PBS NewsHour, “If there’s going to be a deal, it will be done.” In the end, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ruled out such intrusiveness, and President Barack Obama settled for Iran’s agreement to a superficial evaluation by the IAEA. SPND’s work continued. Following the Trump administration’s 2018 withdrawal from the JCPOA and re-imposition of sanctions, Washington broadened designations to include several SPND-affiliated entities and officials. Under the terms of the JCPOA, the United States would have removed sanctions against both Fakhrizadeh and SPND in 2023.

Fakhrizadeh’s demise is felt keenly by Iran’s atomic establishment, which previously lost several leading figures in a similar manner. However, his departure will not stymie onward progress. The president of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, told Science the day after Fakhrizadeh’s death, “An efficient system has been established which is able to pursue the envisioned projects without any hindrance.” In other words, Fakhrizadeh passed down all the know-how needed to maintain and unite Iran’s dispersed nuclear weapons projects as one.

The IAEA has never determined which activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device continue today or the level of their progression since 2003. As the next U.S. presidential administration assumes power, it should predicate any relief from sanctions on the full disclosure and cessation of Iran’s military nuclear activities. If Tehran conclusively showed that its nuclear program was peaceful in nature, its regional adversaries might not consider scientists such as Fakhrizadeh to be military targets.

Andrea Stricker is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where she also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) and Iran Program.


The Killing of a Nuclear Scientist May Save Countless Lives

Richard Kemp

Gatestone Institute, November 30, 2020

  • Under the slogan “Death to America”, Iran has been at war with the US, Israel and their Western allies since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, using proxy groups to kill hundreds of Americans in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and other places; and to launch terror attacks across the Middle East, Europe, the US and Latin America.
  • Mr Fakhrizadeh was a brigadier general in the IRGC and therefore not only a senior military commander in a country at war with the US and its allies but also a proscribed international terrorist.
  • Iran will never abandon what it considers its absolute right to become a nuclear-armed state, not under the current regime nor any future regime…. It has lied to the IAEA and the archive even sets out in detail the ways in which it has deceived the inspectors.
  • Despite claims to the contrary, the JCPOA was never going to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran… Its sunset clauses meant that at best the deal might have delayed Tehran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons for a few years…. Any return to the JCPOA by a Biden White House, as is being pushed by Mr Brennan and other prospective administration officials, will not see a strengthened deal but more likely an even weaker one.
  • Mr Brennan and the European supporters of his argument seem to believe that Iran can be contained by appeasement and negotiation rather than military strength and political will. The path advocated by the proponents of appeasement can only lead to infinitely greater bloodshed, violence and suffering than the death of a proscribed terrorist on the streets of Iran.


The scene of Fakhrizadeh’s assassination on November 27, near Teheran. (Image source: Fars/Wikimedia Commons)

With unfailing predictability, EU external affairs spokesman Peter Sano as well as other European Iran-appeasers rushed to condemn the targeted killing on November 27 of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. In doing so they exhibited shocking disregard for the death, destruction and suffering likely to be inflicted by the totalitarian Iranian regime utilising the pernicious expertise of Mr Fakhrizadeh.

From across the Atlantic they were joined by, among others, former CIA Director John O. Brennan, who described the killing as “state-sponsored terrorism” and “a flagrant violation of international law”. Yet Mr Brennan was in the White House Situation Room in 2011 when the US launched an operation to kill Usama bin Laden on Pakistani sovereign territory. Presumably he was not whispering into President Barack Obama’s ear that SEAL Team Six were violating international law.

As Obama’s counterterrorism adviser and then Director of the CIA, Mr Brennan also presided over and publicly justified an extensive programme of CIA targeted killing by drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere. Some years earlier, I was in meetings with Mr Brennan when he extolled the utility and legitimacy of targeted killings against terrorists.


Former CIA Director John Brennan: Oversaw an extensive program of targetted killing, but objected to the killing of Fakhrizadeh

In an apparent attempt to reconcile his stance now with his roles and moral position while in government, Mr Brennan described Mr Fakhrizadeh’s elimination as “far different than strikes against terrorist leaders & operatives of groups like Al Qaida and Islamic State”.

Although pronouncing this targeted killing illegal, Mr Brennan’s objections seem to focus more on fear of the “lethal retaliation & a new round of regional conflict” that he considers likely. There is also the apparent subtext, shared by many others on the left, of concern that this attack makes a Biden administration’s return to the JCPOA nuclear deal with Iran more problematic.

Mr Brennan’s perspective encapsulates the most common objection to targeted killing in modern times. It tends to be less about the often-disputed legality of such action — targeted killing in war has never been absolutely prohibited under international law — and more about the legality, morality or advisability of the foreign policy under which such techniques have been carried out.

In turn, this leads to opinions of what is and is not war, and the status of state vs non-state actors. Mr Brennan says targeted killings are lawful against illegitimate combatants, i.e. terrorist operatives, but not officials of sovereign states in peacetime with the implication that in this case the perpetrators of the killing were not at war with Iran.

This is to misunderstand the reality that war can no longer been seen as defined periods of hostilities characterised by sweeping movements of armour across the plains, grand naval battles and dogfights in the skies. Instead, the lines between peace and war have been intentionally blurred by countries such as Iran and Russia, often using surrogates to strike their enemies, as well as by non-state actors such as the Islamic State and Al Qaida, with unprecedented capacity for global violence.

Under the slogan “Death to America”, Iran has been at war with the US, Israel and their Western allies since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, using proxy groups to kill hundreds of Americans in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and other places; and to launch terror attacks across the Middle East, Europe, the US and Latin America. Iran supports President Bashar Assad’s murderous regime in Syria, materially aids the Islamic State and Taliban and has deliberately harboured and facilitated senior Al Qaida leaders, one of whom, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, was killed in Tehran in mid-November.

Iran has prosecuted a long-term concerted war against Israel with the declared intention of eliminating the Jewish State. It has funded and directed attacks from Gaza, Lebanon and Syria, inside Israel and against Israeli citizens and government officials beyond the region. It has built an extensive missile complex in southern Lebanon, deploying many thousands of rockets pointed at Israel. It has sought to develop a base of operations in Syria from which to attack Israel. It has fomented, funded and armed an insurgency in Yemen from which to conduct a proxy war against Saudi Arabia. It has also launched drone and cruise missile attacks against Saudi oil facilities.

This decades-long global war is organized and controlled by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), whose former Quds Force commander, Qasem Soleimani, was killed in Baghdad by a US drone strike in January. The IRGC is designated a terrorist organization by the US and several other countries. Mr Fakhrizadeh was a brigadier general in the IRGC and therefore not only a senior military commander in a country at war with the US and its allies but also a proscribed international terrorist.

He was, however, much more than that. He was the founder and long-term director of the illegal Iranian nuclear weapons programme which is controlled by the IRGC. The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that he led the programme, known as Amad, which sought to develop nuclear weapons under the guise of a civilian energy project. Amad was shelved in 2003 but replaced by the Oganization of Defensive Innovation and Research, SPND, which he headed until his death. The work of Amad, SPND and other covert bodies was exposed in an extensive nuclear archive seized by Israel’s Mossad from Tehran in 2018, to which I was given access last year.

The acute threat of an Iranian nuclear bomb was recognised by President Obama, who pledged in 2012 to prevent it, using military force if necessary. Like his red line over President Assad’s chemical weapons in Syria, Obama’s assurance dissolved into a faint pink with his negotiation of the JCPOA nuclear deal in 2015 which, rather than halting Iran’s programme, paved the way for it.

Obama’s apprehension over the Iranian danger was shared around the world by countries that recognised the threat was not just to the Middle East as Iran continued work on long range missiles capable of delivering a nuclear warhead. They knew also that the Iranian programme would trigger in the Middle East a nuclear arms race which is now under way, mainly involving Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt.


Former British army commander Colonel (ret.) Richard Kemp

The fear of Iran’s nuclear programme, as well as its regional and global aggression, was the major incentive for years of under-the-radar cooperation between Arab states and Israel — a cooperation that has recently matured openly into the Abraham Accords. With Obama’s failure to support the Arabs against Iranian aggression, they saw Israel as the one country they could depend on for protection.

Iran will never abandon what it considers its absolute right to become a nuclear-armed state, not under the current regime nor any future regime. The nuclear archive proves that while the regime has consistently denied its weapons programme, it has forged ahead with it, in breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that it signed in 1970, and despite its obligations under the JCPOA, and has put in place measures to continue to do so. It has lied to the IAEA and the archive even sets out in detail the ways in which it has deceived the inspectors.

Despite claims to the contrary, the JCPOA was never going to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran and was not designed to do so. Its sunset clauses meant that, at best, the deal might have delayed Tehran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons for a few years, kicking the can down the road for future generations to pick up in a far more dangerous context. Any return to the JCPOA by a Biden White House, as is being pushed by Mr Brennan and other prospective administration officials, will not see a strengthened deal but more likely an even weaker one.

Other than regime change with a highly unpredictable outcome, that leaves no alternative to coercion. Israel ended the Iraqi nuclear project in 1981 and the Syrian project in 2007 by air strikes. These were condemned by the US and European countries at the time. But they were later recognised as vital steps for regional security when Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait had to be repelled and the Islamic State in Syria crushed.

Iran has learnt from these earlier actions, and effective air strikes against their nuclear programme would be far more difficult and bloody, though cannot be excluded if necessary. Meanwhile, an unattributable campaign to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions has unfolded, including Stuxnet and other cyber attacks, sabotage and covert action against nuclear facilities, and targeted killings of nuclear scientists. The elimination of Mr Fakhrizadeh was the latest and arguably most significant of these, both in terms of deterrence and denial of expertise. The potential effectiveness of these actions has been increased by President Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions. Together these measures stand the best chance of retarding Iran’s nuclear programme, as well as restraining its non-nuclear aggression, short of conventional strikes or all-out war.

Those that argue against this policy fail to understand the danger that a nuclear-armed Iran presents to the region and the world, wrongly believe that the programme can be halted by diplomatic means or are happy with the idea of a nuclear-armed fanatical dictatorship. Mr Brennan and the European supporters of his argument seem to believe that Iran can be contained by appeasement and negotiation rather than military strength and political will. This is a failure to comprehend either the psychology or ideology of the Iranian leadership. The path advocated by the proponents of appeasement can only lead to infinitely greater bloodshed, violence and suffering than the death of a proscribed terrorist on the streets of Iran.

Colonel Richard Kemp is a former British Army Commander. He was also head of the international terrorism team in the U.K. Cabinet Office and is now a writer and speaker on international and military affairs.

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