Gangsterism as Foreign Policy: Assassinations are Becoming the New Norm

Photograph Source: Fars News Agency – CC BY 4.0

I was in Israel on 4 November 1995 when a student named Yigal Amir assassinated the Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin as he left a peace rally in Tel Aviv. A video shows Amir loitering by an exit to the square for 40 minutes before Rabin appears, when his killer takes out a pistol and fires two shots point blank into Rabin’s back. His purpose was to prevent a lasting peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians by killing the man who was the most powerful protagonist of such an agreement.

The assassination was universally condemned amid plaudits for Rabin as a man and a statesman, but within a year Binyamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister and progress towards a settlement stalled and went into reverse.

Twenty-five years later almost to the day, another assassination took place, this time in Iran, of a nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, as he was driving in a car east of Tehran. He was ambushed and killed by a squad of gunmen, alleged to be Israeli, who shot him and exploded a bomb in a car prepositioned at the scene of the attack.

This time there was no international condemnation of the action of what was, going by different accounts, a death squad operating in a foreign country against a foreign citizen. This free pass was because the target was an Iranian and Fakhrizadeh had been accused by Israel of playing a leading role in a secret plan to build a nuclear device. But these allegations were unproven, mostly dated from long ago, and the current activities of the dead man are unclear. What is evident, however, is that “targeted killings” by assassins outside their home countries are becoming very much the norm as a way in which nations show their strength. The poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury by Russian agents in Salisbury in 2018 and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi death squad in Istanbul the same year are good examples of this and the death of Fakhrizadeh is another.

This latest assassination was not justified primarily as an attempt to disrupt Iran’s nuclear programme, but as a legitimate and successful display of state power. The New York Times said approvingly that “Mr Fakhrizadeh has become the latest casualty in a campaign of audacious covert attacks seemingly designed to torment Iranian leaders with reminders of their weakness.” It added that the operation confronted Iran with an agonising choice between retaliation and seeking to re-engage with the US when Joe Biden becomes president, replacing the viscerally anti-Iranian Donald Trump.

Any description of this or other “targeted killing” by Israel or anybody else should carry a health warning. Everybody involved has a reason for lying, just as they once did about Saddam Hussein’s non-existent WMD in 2003. Anything leaked by intelligence agencies to a credulous media should only be consumed with a large measure of salt.

Without officially claiming the attack, Israel is sending a message to Tehran to the effect that “we may soon no longer have Trump in our corner, but we can still hit you hard”. A further motive is to sour Iran against a nuclear deal with America, embolden Iranian hard liners who always opposed it, potentially provoke self-destructive Iranian retaliation, and complicate Biden’s declared intention to return to Barack Obama’s 2015 agreement with Iran.  

Patrick Cockburn’s past columns can now be found at The I. Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).