GZERO Media logo

Your move, Iran

Your move, Iran

It's been four days since Iran's top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, died in a hail of bullets on a highway near Tehran. Iran has plausibly blamed Israel for the killing, but more than that, not much is known credibly or in detail.

This is hardly the first time that an Iranian nuclear scientist has been assassinated in an operation that has a whiff of Mossad about it. But Fakhrizadeh's prominence — he is widely regarded as the father of the Iranian nuclear program — as well as the timing of the killing, just six weeks from the inauguration of a new American president, make it a particularly big deal. Not least because an operation this sensitive would almost certainly have required a US sign-off.

So what's the aftermath?

Killing Fakhrizadeh does two things immediately. In the most immediate term, it may — along with the recent bombing (also likely by Israel) of a key nuclear site — deal a temporary blow to Iran's nuclear ambitions. But it will hardly derail a program as extensive and sophisticated as what the Iranians have built over the past two decades.

But more broadly, the killing could complicate the prospects of reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, something that US president-elect Joe Biden has said he wants to do when he takes office in January.

As a refresher: Under that pact, Iran froze its nuclear weapons programs in exchange for the removal of some US and international sanctions. But Israel and many Iran hawks in Washington said the pact didn't do enough to permanently stop Iran's path to a bomb, and that it failed to curb Iran's other weapons programs and regional proxy wars. In 2018, Trump left the deal and reimposed sanctions. Since then Iran has ramped up its nuclear program, while the Trump administration has applied tighter sanctions still.

Now, with tensions rising and the Iranians progressing towards a bomb again, Biden says he's willing to consider stepping back into the agreement, lifting sanctions again if Iran goes back to the uranium limits agreed in the 2015 deal.

Doing that would require Biden to lead extremely deft negotiations not only with Tehran but also on Capitol Hill, where many American lawmakers are skeptical of any overtures towards Iran at all.

And that's where the Fakhrizadeh killing could make things even harder: if the Iranians respond forcefully to the assassination — say by striking at a target within Israel, or by attacking US forces as they did in retaliation for the US killing of Qassim Suleimani in January — Biden could take office in January amid a cycle of escalation that makes it very hard to sit down and talk calmly with Tehran at all.

That puts the ball in Iran's court right now — and it's a court divided. Strong supporters of the Iran deal, like president Hassan Rouhani, will doubtless want to keep things cool until January and see what Biden brings to the table. But harder line figures who were always skeptical of the Iran deal will be itching to respond to the killing, but they also wish to see some of the more crippling oil and banking sanctions removed.

How, then, to balance the revolutionary impulse to save face with the pragmatic need to get economic relief? In part it depends on how realistic Tehran thinks a return to the Iran deal is.

Either way, we would love to be inside the Iranian Leadership's "Assassination Response" WhatsApp group right now. Supreme Leader Khamenei is typing...

Khant Thaw Htoo is a young engineer who works in Eni's Sakura Tower office in the heart of Yangon. As an HSE engineer, he monitors the safety and environmental impact of onshore and offshore operations. He also looks out for his parents' well-being, in keeping with Myanmar's traditions.

Learn more about Khant in the final episode of the Faces of Eni series, which focuses on Eni's employees around the world.

On his first day as president, Joe Biden signed a remarkable series of executive orders. Boom! The US rejoins the Paris Climate Accord. Bang! The United States rejoins the World Health Organization. Pow! No more ban on immigration from many Muslim-majority countries. Biden's press secretary reminded reporters later in the day that all these orders merely begin complex processes that take time, but the impact is still dramatic.

If you lead a country allied with the US, or you're simply hoping for some specific commitment or clear and credible statement of purpose from the US government, you might feel a little dizzy today. The sight of an American president (Barack Obama) signing his name, of the next president (Donald Trump) erasing that name from the same legislation/bill, and then the following president (Biden) signing it back into law again will raise deep concerns over the long-term reliability of the world's still-most-powerful nation.

More Show less

Renowned tech journalist Kara Swisher has no qualms about saying that many of the country's social media companies need to be held accountable for their negative role in our current national discourse. Swisher calls for "a less friendly relationship with tech" by the Biden administration, an "internet bill of rights" around privacy, and an investigation into antitrust issues.

Swisher, who hosts the New York Times podcast Sway, joins Ian Bremmer for the latest episode of GZERO World, airing on public television nationwide beginning this Friday, January 22th. Check local listings.

Now that Joe Biden is officially US president, leaders from around the world would like a word with him — but where will he make his first international trip?

After a tumultuous four years, many countries are now clamoring for a face-to-face with President Biden. That includes allies who felt abandoned by Trump's "America First" presidency, as well as adversaries with thorny issues on the agenda. We check in on who's pitching him hardest on a near-term state visit.

More Show less

Brexit pettiness lingers: Here we were naively thinking the Brexit shenanigans were over after the EU and UK agreed to an eleventh-hour post-Brexit trade deal last month. We were wrong — the saga continues. Now, a new row has erupted after the Johnson government said it will not give the EU ambassador in London the same diplomatic status awarded to other representatives of nation states. Unsurprisingly, this announcement peeved Brussels, whose delegates enjoy full diplomatic status in at least 142 other countries. The UK says it will give the EU envoy the same privileges as those given to international organizations, which are subject to change and do not include immunity from detention and taxation given to diplomats under the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations. EU members are furious, with officials accusing London of simply trying to flex its muscles and engaging in "petty" behavior. The two sides will discuss the matter further when European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson meet next week, their first face-to-face since the two sides settled the Brexit quagmire on December 31. Alas, the Brexit nightmare continues.

More Show less
The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.


Subscribe to GZERO Media's Newsletter: Signal