Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a leading Iranian physicist, was assassinated on November 27 near Absard, a city around 70 km to Tehran's east. Fakhrizadeh was reportedly involved in Iran's clandestine programme to develop nuclear weapons. On its part, Iran has always denied that it has ever had any interest in making nuclear weapons, leave alone undertaking any activities to manufacture them. It is a fact though that it was enriching uranium which it implicitly claimed was never going to be of weapons-grade. It committed to end the enrichment programme in its deal with the US which was endorsed by the other permanent member-states of the UN Security Council. President Donald Trump took the US out of the agreement. His move was opposed by other countries which were parties to it but was greatly supported by Israel and Saudi Arabia. These two countries had lobbied very hard to prevent a US-Iran nuclear agreement but the Obama administration had gone ahead despite their opposition. It is also noteworthy that as a non-weapons member-state of the Nuclear non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) Iran had pledged not to make nuclear weapons.
There were initially conflicting reports about the mode of Fakhrizadeh's assassination but later Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council said that electronic devices were used to 'remotely' carry out the assassination. He pointed a finger at Israel and has been reported by an international TV channel as saying that Israel wanted to kill Fakhrizadeh for 20 years. The same channel went on to quote him asserting "this time, the enemy used a completely professional, sophisticated and new method".
Shamkhani also alleged that the Iranian group Mujahedin-e-Khalq had a 'role' in Fakhrizadeh's killing. The group founded in 1965 waged a struggle against the Shah, was aligned with Ayatollah Khomeini for a couple of years but later fell out with him and since 1981 gradually became a great enemy of the Iranian clerical system. It has been in exile since the past two and a half decades and has used violence to target prominent Iranian figures in the past.
Clearly, the object to target Fakhrizadeh was to greatly damage Iran's nuclear programme. In the past too Iranian nuclear scientists have been murdered and no one has taken responsibility. Many believe that these killings were carried out by Israeli intelligence. This shadowy game has thus gone on for years. Israel holds that Iran is committed to develop nuclear weapons. It fears that an Iran with nuclear weapons will endanger its security. There is abiding enmity between Iran and Israel; the former supports some Arab groups such as the Hizbollah which undertake violent and terrorist attacks against the Israeli people.
Some security analysts have said that the Fakhrizadeh's killing is meant to queer the pitch for the incoming US President Joe Biden's West Asia policy. As US Vice-President Biden was part of the Obama administration which was instrumental in initiating purposeful contacts with Iran which culminated in the nuclear deal. That deal not only eased Iran's economic situation but also ensured that it could play a larger role in the region. It is expected that Biden would seek to return to updated Obama format with Iran. Naturally, Israel would not wish that to happen. Fakhrizadeh's killing would have only increased anti-West feelings in Iran. That would assist Iranian hardliners to press President Hassan Rouhani to adopt more rigid approaches towards a Biden lead US. For the time being Rouhani has expressed great anger at Fakhrizadeh's assassination but has been cautious not to foreclose the possibility of a dialogue with the Biden after January 20 when he will be sworn in as President.
The Fakhrizadeh assassination compels consideration of the wider issue of states targeting officials of another state to cause injury or death. Countries seldom undertake such actions for fear of reciprocal acts but they are not unknown. They are obviously meant to retard the progress of programmes that the state undertaking these actions regards as hostile to its interests. Thus, in this case, Israel's fear of an Iran with nuclear weapons. On its part Israel maintains silence, clearly, as a matter of policy, whenever such events take place in Iran.
Of course, states should never undertake to bodily harm or even harm the reputation of officials of another state. The international system coheres on the premise that all states respect this basic principle. Indeed, this principle extends to the sanctity of all nationals from injury or bodily harm from the direct and targeted actions of other states. If this principle is violated as in Fakhrizadeh assassination it can only be called a rogue and barbaric act.
The international system also rests on the principle that a country would not seek the overthrow of foreign governments through provoking violence or interference in their political processes. This principle is however often violated. But naturally the targeting of individuals is inherently different from that of regime change. It is a fact that the US, especially under President Trump has favoured the demise of the clerical system in Iran. Israel too has sympathy with such an approach.
The question is if the principle of the sanctity of foreign nationals can be extended to those private persons or officials who undertake clandestine violent or terrorist activity against a country. Thus, what is the validity of drone strikes undertaken by, for example, the US against persons it calls terrorists? It may be doing so through processes which are legal and justified in its own system but there is no binding international instrument on these matters as yet.