The assassination of Iran’s nuclear weapons czar was legal and justified

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh meets the criteria of a legitimate target under international law, and his death probably saved countless lives.

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Jan. 23, 2019. Credit: Kamenie.ir via Wikimedia Commons.
Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Jan. 23, 2019. Credit: Kamenie.ir via Wikimedia Commons.
James Sinkinson
James Sinkinson
James Sinkinson is president of Facts and Logic About the Middle East (FLAME), which publishes educational messages to correct lies and misperceptions about Israel and its relationship to the United States.

The audacious Nov. 27 assassination of Iran’s top nuclear weapons scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, just north of Tehran, drew criticism from mainstream media and some politicians, both in the United States and abroad. But their objections are misplaced—even perverse—given Fakhrizadeh’s prominent role in the Islamic Republic’s efforts to threaten its neighbors in the Middle East and globally.

Nonetheless, the European Union condemned the assassination as “a criminal act [that] runs counter to the principle of respect for human rights.” The far-left group J Street claimed it was meant to sabotage diplomacy. Some blamed Israel or the United States, while many assumed it could be a combination of both.

The debate centers on whether the assassination was justified, reasonable or legal. Countless news articles or obituaries disingenuously referred to Fakhrizadeh as a “nuclear scientist” with little or no background about his role in the potential creation of weapons of mass destruction for a nation that has long aspired to wipe Israel off the map. NPR reported that “according to U.S. intelligence reports” Fakhrizadeh had not been involved in nuclear weapons development for at least 10 years.

Let’s look at the facts.

Fakhrizadeh was no mere scientist. He was a brigadier general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which, according to the Iranian constitution, is intended to protect the Islamic Republic’s political system. In other words, the IRGC exists solely to protect the mullahcracy and repress the Iranian people. It has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, has been involved in terrorist activities in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and actively assists terrorist organizations Hezbollah and Hamas.

Fakhrizadeh headed the important Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research of the Iranian Defense Ministry, which conducted clandestine nuclear weapons research. He is known as the “father of Iran’s nuclear bomb.” His covert department’s sole responsibility is to create nuclear weapons capability for a nation that openly calls to destroy the State of Israel. In other words, Fakhrizadeh is a key accomplice in the attempted commission of genocide.

Fakhrizadeh has been sanctioned by the United States since 2008 for his work on Iran’s nuclear program. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu named him specifically when revealing the trove of nuclear weapons plans Israel seized from a Tehran warehouse in 2018.

Nor is Iran a stranger to assassinations. According to the United States Institute for Peace’s “Iran Primer,” Iran has assassinated dozens of its enemies across four continents, in Asia, Europe, North America and South America, over the four decades since the 1979 revolution. It was actively involved in 59 attacks, which resulted in the death of hundreds of innocent people, including hundreds of Americans.

The Quds Force, the elite wing of the IRGC that operates outside Iran, has been behind most of the murders. Its regular targeting of foreign officials and diplomats all over the world amply demonstrates that the Islamic Republic has no qualms about using violence, bloodshed and murder to further its aims.

What’s more, it is absurd to argue that a nation cannot conduct such an operation in self-defense.

Customary international law regarding preemptive self-defense follows the “Caroline test,” which states that in order for such defensive action to be legitimate, the necessity for it must be “instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.” The test takes its name from the 1837 “Caroline affair,” and this formulation of international law was reaffirmed by the Nuremberg Tribunal after World War II. To stop the building of nuclear weapons by a nation that has openly stated its intention to use them against you certainly falls under that category.

Indeed, warring nations use this tactic regularly. During WWII, the United States regularly targeted those involved in the enemy’s military campaign, including Isoroku Yamamoto, the senior planner of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

One week after 9/11, the U.S. Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists (AUMF) which allowed for drone strikes against enemy targets. These have been used by all administrations since. These types of actions are also used by many governments around the world, including the United Kingdom, France and Russia.

The killing of Fakhrizadeh was not akin to a political assassination. He was the leader of a military organization known for its ties to murder, terrorism and repression of the Iranian people. He was the head of a department in the Iranian Defense Ministry working on acquiring nuclear weapons capability. That act alone is contrary to international law, and his role in the attempted commission of genocide is a war crime.

The fact that the very incitement to genocide is an international war crime is because we dare not wait for someone to actually carry out the mass murder of a people or nation. If inciting to genocide is a war crime, then surely creating the means to carry one out is far worse.

The killing of Fakhrizadeh meets the criteria of a legitimate target under international law. Iran is considered in a state of hostilities with the United States, Israel and many of its direct neighbors. Fakhrizadeh was in no way a civilian, having been actively involved in the theater of war and the use of deadly force against civilians. His death clearly minimizes harm to civilians.

Those who claim that this creator of weapons of mass destruction was not given a fair trial overlook the undeniable facts that Fakhrizadeh’s career has been stained with blood and murder, and Iran is a state actor that falls well outside the norms of international relations.

Fakhrizadeh was not just another cog in the machine, but the apex of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s state-sanctioned murder and regional hegemony schemes. The fact that he no longer walks the earth aids the cause of peace and stability, and has probably saved countless lives.

James Sinkinson is president of Facts and Logic About the Middle East (FLAME), which publishes educational messages to correct lies and misperceptions about Israel and its relationship to the United States.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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