Jared Kushner is heading to Saudi Arabia and Qatar this week to push more countries to normalize relations with Israel, a trip that comes days after an Iranian nuclear scientist was killed near Tehran in an assassination which has been blamed on Israeli intelligence forces.
The diplomatic effort by President Trump‘s son-in-law and adviser is seen as the latest attempt to draw Middle Eastern nations into closer alignment with Israel as Iran‘s influence grows in the region.
A senior Trump administration official told Reuters Sunday that Kushner is set to meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the city of Neom.
A meeting with Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the emir of Qatar, will happen in that country.
Kushner, his wife Ivanka, and their children Theodore, Joseph and Arabella were seen Sunday disembarking from Marine One at the White House alongside President Trump.
The family had spent Thanksgiving weekend at Camp David.
Jared Kushner (left), President Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, is heading to Saudi Arabia and Qatar this week to push more countries to normalize relations with Israel. The pair are pictured Sunday returning to Washington DC after spending Thanksgiving weekend at Camp David
Kushner is set to meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the city of Neom
In Qatar, Kushner is expected meet that country’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who is pictured (at left) with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Middle East envoys Avi Berkowitz and Brian Hook will join Kusher on the trip, as will Adam Boehler, chief executive of the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, Reuters reports.
Since August, Kushner has helped midwife Israeli normalization deals with Sudan, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates.
Five days before the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who is believed to be the architect of Iran’s nuclear bomb program, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Saudi Arabia and met with bin Salman, an Israeli official said.
It was the first acknowledged meeting between high-level Saudi and Israeli leaders. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also joined the meeting, according to Israeli media.
But the Saudis are not believed to be close to reaching any historic deal with Israel, according to Reuters.
Under President Trump in 2018, the U.S. backed out of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, whose influence is seen to be growing in the Middle East as it advances its nuclear bomb program. Trump is pictured returning to the White House on Sunday with his grandchildren, Theodore, Joseph and Arabella Kushner
Kushner and his wife Ivanka (pictured) were seen Sunday disembarking from Marine One at the White House alongside President Trump after spending Thanksgiving at Camp David
Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who is believed to be the architect of Iran’s nuclear bomb program, was killed Friday reportedly by a 12-man hit squad under the direction of Israeli intelligence
Last week Kushner met with Kuwaiti foreign minister Sheikh Ahmad Nasser Al-Mohammad Al-Sabah, Reuters reported.
Kuwait is seen as a regional player that can bridge the current rift between Qatar and the other nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council: the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, and the UAE cut diplomatic relations with Qatar in 2017 and instituted a boycott over charges that Qatar supported terrorism, which the country denies.
U.S. diplomatic efforts in the Middle East continue as the incoming Joe Biden administration is expected to rejoin the framework of the Iran nuclear deal of 2015, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Biden has said that he plans to reinstate the deal if Iran agrees to strict compliance.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo joined a meeting between bin Salman and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu five days before the killing of Iranian scientist Fakhrizadeh
To strike the 2015 deal, which stood as President Barack Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement, Iran had tightly curtailed its nuclear ambitions for a decade in exchange for the lifting of grueling sanctions that impoverished many of its citizens.
After telegraphing the move for a long time, President Trump finally left the framework in 2018 and reinstated sanctions against Iran.
Two years later, Iran had resumed enriching uranium and increased its nuclear fuel stockpile, thereby cutting in half the amount of time it would need produce enough fuel for a nuclear bomb, according to Foreign Policy.
Israel is currently the only Middle Eastern nation that has nuclear weapons.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that his nation’s nuclear program would continue after the killing of Fakhrizadeh.
Rouhani also vowed revenge over the assassination, which the country claims happened at the hands of a 12-member assassin team under the direction of Mossad, Israel’s main intelligence agency.
Details of the killing were reported by Iranian journalist Mohamad Ahwaze who claims he received leaked information from Iran’s authorities.
One American official and two other intelligence officials also told the New York Times that Israel was behind the attack.
Ahwaze said the attack was planned for a roundabout in Absard, at the foot of a tree-lined boulevard which enters the city.
Fakhrizadeh’s killers – which included a pair of snipers – formed part of a 62-person strong group of plotters. The remaining 50 people were responsible for logistical support. Pictured: The aftermath of the assassination
The team, which had an additional 50 members providing logistical support, had been watching Fakhrizadeh, and knew that he was going to be driving from Tehran to Absard on Friday.
The mountain retreat of 10,000 people is where many well-off Tehranis have second homes, and Fakhrizadeh, 59, had a villa there.
The 12 assassins were deployed to Absard. A Hyundai Santa Fe with four passengers, four motorcycles, and two snipers were waiting for Fakhrizadeh at the scene of the ambush – along with a booby-trapped Nissan pickup.
Half an hour before Fakhrizadeh’s convoy of three bulletproof cars arrived, the electricity was cut off to the area, Ahwaze reported. The team was in place when the first car passed the roundabout.
As the third car passed, the Nissan exploded, damaging electricity poles and transmitters, according to a state TV report from the area on Friday night.
The second car, containing Fakhrizadeh, was then shot at by the 12 assassins, including two snipers.
Remarkable detail of the elaborate plot to assassinate ‘prominent and distinguished’ Iranian nuclear scientist Fakhrizadeh has been leaked (pictured) – as the nation claims Israel is behind the hit
Mohsen Fakhrizadeh – dubbed the ‘father’ of Iran’s bomb program – was shot dead in his car by 12 highly-trained assassins following an explosion in the city of Absard, 50 miles east of Tehran. Pictured: Ebrahim Raisi – head of Iran’s judiciary – and family members of Fakhrizadeh stand by his body
The gunmen with the hit squad opened fire on the cars, and an intense gunfight ensued, according to Sepah Cybery, a social media channel affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Ahwaze tweeted: ‘According to Iranian leaks, the leader of the assassination team took Fakhrizadeh out of his car and shot him and made sure he was killed.’
The hit squad then vanished, having sustained no losses to their team, Ahwaze reported.
Residents told state television that they heard the sound of a big explosion followed by intense machine gun fire as Fakhrizadeh’s bodyguards fought back.
They knew the man they were protecting had for years been Mossad’s number one target.
A police helicopter landed in the area to transport Fakhrizadeh and others to the hospital, according to a video posted by a resident who said ‘several people are dead.’
When members of Fakhrizadeh’s security detail arrived in hospital, they were surprised to find that there was no electricity, after the power had been cut. They are then transported to Tehran.
The masters of ‘wet work’: Israeli agents are feared for covert assassination ops
Israel has often favoured covert ‘wet work’ tactics against its enemies – including assassinations.
The country’s national intelligence agency Mossad has been accused carrying out attacks on members of Palestinian fundamentalist group Hamas in recent years.
Prominent Iranian figures have also been targets – several of which have been nuclear scientists.
Within the agency is an elite unit known as Kidon – or ‘tip of the spear – which is widely-understood to be responsible for assassinations.
The group has been dubbed an ‘an elite group of expert assassins’ – but little is known about them or how they operate.
Alleged Mossad attacks tend to be quick and clean, including killings where the assassin is on the back of a motorcycle for an easy getaway.
Mossad hits are also usually outside of Israel – further reducing the chances that the attacks will be tied to the state.
Choosing the assassination target is a complicated process involving Mossad itself, the Israeli intelligence community and those in the highest seats of Government.
The military can also play a role in picking a target.
Below are some alleged – and confirmed – attacks against Iranians by the Israeli state.
February 12, 2013 - Hassan Shateri – who went by the pseudonym Hussam Khoshnevis – was a major general of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
He was killed in an Israeli airstrike in Syria.
January 11, 2012 – Iranian nuclear scientist Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan was assassinated in a motorbike bomb attack in Tehran. Mossad are allegedly responsible.
November 12, 2011 – General Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam was killed – along with 17 other Revolutionary Guard members – in an explosion at a missile base in Tehran.
Moghaddam was the mind behind Iran’s ballistic missile forces.
Iranian officials themselves have insisted the explosion was an accident and said there was no Israeli involvement – but some reports have accused Mossad of being behind it.
July 23, 2011 – Iranian electrical engineer Darioush Rezaeinejad was allegedly killed by a Mossad operative on a motorcycle in Tehran.
He helped to develop high-voltage switches used in nuclear weaponry.
January 12, 2010 – Iranian Physicist Masoud Alimohammadi was killed in a car bomb.
A man later appeared in court claiming Massad hired him to kill Alimohammadi. US officials rubbished the allegations.
At 10.28am EST (7.30pm local time) on Friday, the Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, said that ‘an eminent Iranian scientist’ had been killed, with the suspected aid of Israel.
Fakhrizadeh’s body lay in a flag-draped, open coffin at a mosque on Saturday in central Tehran, where Iran’s chief justice, Ebrahim Raisi, prayed over his body in a public spectacle of mourning.
His death sent tensions in the region skyrocketing as Iran accused Israel of trying to provoke a war by killing the scientist – who Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once called out in a news conference saying: ‘Remember that name’.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Saturday called Fakhrizadeh ‘the country’s prominent and distinguished nuclear and defensive scientist.’
Khamenei – who has the final say on all matters of state – said Iran’s first priority after the killing was the ‘definitive punishment of the perpetrators and those who ordered it.’ He did not elaborate.
And, in an intervention that risks inflaming conflict even further, a former head of the US’s Central Intelligence Agency labelled the assassination a ‘criminal’ act and branded it ‘highly reckless’.
John Brennan – who was director of the CIA from 2013 to 2017 under the administration of president Barack Obama – said he did not know who was to blame for the murder of Fakhrizadeh but labeled it a ‘criminal’ act.
In a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the UN Security Council on Friday, Iranian envoy, Majid Takht Ravanchi wrote: ‘Warning against any adventuristic measures by the United States and Israel against my country, particularly during the remaining period of the current administration of the United States in office, the Islamic Republic of Iran reserves its rights to take all necessary measures to defend its people and secure its interests.’
The proxy war between Israel and Iran has predominately remained in the realm of verbal hostility and threats.
Israel is suspicious of Iran’s nuclear capabilities – and seeks to reduce the impact of its allies and proxies.
The country has been accused of using covert ‘wet work’ tactics in its mission against Iran – including assassinations.
Friday’s attack comes just days before the 10-year anniversary of the killing of Iranian nuclear scientist Majid Shahriari.
Tehran blamed that attack on Israel too as it came at the height of Western fears over Iran’s nuclear program.
Hossein Dehghan – who is a presidential candidate in Iran’s 2021 election as well as an adviser to its supreme leader Ali Khamenei – echoed the claim that Israel was behind the attack.
‘In the last days of their gambling ally’s political life, the Zionists seek to intensify and increase pressure on Iran to wage a full-blown war,’ Mr Dehghan wrote, appearing to refer to US President Donald Trump’s last days in office.
It comes amid fears that the Trump administration could order a strike on Iran in the weeks before the president relinquishes power to President-Elect Joe Biden.
Dehghan added: ‘We will descend like lightning on the killers of this oppressed martyr and we will make them regret their actions.’
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also said Israel was to blame for the ambush in a televised speech on Saturday, and said Iran would retaliate for the killing of Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi at ‘the proper time’.
Rouhani said: ’Our people are wiser than to fall in the trap of the Zionist regime (Israel) … Iran will surely respond to the martyrdom of our scientist at the proper time.’
Rouhani said that Fakhrizadeh’s death would not stop its nuclear program, something Supreme Leader Khamenei said as well.
Tehran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had suggested Israel was behind the attack, in which he said ‘Terrorists murdered an eminent Iranian scientist’.
Zarif wrote on Twitter: ‘This cowardice – with serious indications of Israeli role – shows desperate warmongering of perpetrators.
Former director of the US Central Intelligence Agency John Brennan called the assassination of Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi, a top Iranian nuclear scientist, ‘criminal’ and ‘reckless’
‘Iran calls on the international community – and especially the EU – to end their shameful double standards and condemn this act of state terror.’
Israel declined to immediately comment on the killing of Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi.
Donald Trump retweeted the New York Times article claiming one American official and two other intelligence officials confirmed that Israel was behind the attack.
He also retweeted Israeli journalist Yossi Melman who called the killing ‘a major psychological and professional blow for Iran’.
‘Mohsen Fakhrizadeh has been assassinated in Damavand, east of Tehran according to reports in Iran. He was head of Iran’s secret military program and wanted for many years by Mossad. His death is a major psychological and professional blow for Iran,’ Melman had tweeted.
Brennan also took to Twitter, claiming that while he did not know who was to blame for the murder of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, it was ‘a criminal act’.
‘This was a criminal act and highly reckless. It risks lethal retaliation and a new round of regional conflict,’ he tweeted.
‘I do not know whether a foreign government authorized or carried out the murder of Fakhrizadeh.
Iran’s vow to seek revenge on Fakhrizadeh’s killers comes amid fears that the Trump administration could order a strike on Iran in the weeks before the president relinquishes power to President-Elect Joe Biden
‘Such an act of state-sponsored terrorism would be a flagrant violation of international law & encourage more governments to carry out lethal attacks against foreign officials.’
Brennan noted that Fakhrizadeh was not a designated terrorist nor a member of Al Qaeda or the Islamic State group, designated terror groups which would be legal targets.
A strong critic of President Donald Trump, Brennan urged Tehran to ‘resist the urge’ to retaliate and ‘wait for the return of responsible American leadership on the global stage,’ a reference to November 3 election winner Joe Biden, who will replace Trump on January 20.
Brennan was director of the CIA from 2013 to 2017, under the administration of president Barack Obama and then-vice president Biden.
Brennan did not take part in Biden’s election campaign and has not appeared to be involved in his preparations for taking office on January 20.
But early this week Biden named Brennan’s former deputy director at the CIA, Avril Haines, as his director of national intelligence.
The United States military on Friday said it had deployed the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (its flight deck, pictured on Wednesday) to the Persian Gulf alongside other warships in order to provide ‘combat support and air cover’ for soldiers withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan
The decision to deploy the Nimitz (pictured on Wednesday) to the Persian Gulf was reportedly made before the killing of Fakhrizadeh
The United States military on Friday said it had deployed the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz to the Persian Gulf alongside other warships in order to provide ‘combat support and air cover’ for soldiers withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The decision to deploy the Nimitz to the Persian Gulf was reportedly made before the killing of Fakhrizadeh.
Israel has so far declined to comment on the death of Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi.
Israel has long been suspected of carrying out a series of targeted killings of Iranian nuclear scientists nearly a decade ago.
Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi was named in UN sanctions resolutions because of his work as head of Iran’s Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research group in 2007.
The US charges that the organization – known by its Farsi acronym SPND – oversees nuclear-relevant research for Iran and is active in the training of new scientists.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu named Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi as boss of the SPND during a news conference in 2018.
In 2007, he was revealed to be the chairman of the Field for the Expansion of Deployment of Advanced Technology (FEDAT) in a leaked Iranian document.
The FEDAT was the cover name for the organisation behind Iran’s nuclear weapons programme.
The leaked document purported to show the country’s four-year plan to develop a uranium deuteride neutron initiator.
Fakhrizadeh led Iran’s so-called ‘Amad,’ or ‘Hope’ program.
Israel and the West have alleged it was a military operation looking at the feasibility of building a nuclear weapon in Iran. Tehran long has maintained its nuclear program is peaceful.
The International Atomic Energy Agency says that ‘Amad’ program ended in the early 2000s. IAEA inspectors now monitor Iranian nuclear sites as part of Iran’s now-unraveling nuclear deal with world power.
Senior Israeli officials this week predicted ‘a very sensitive period’ in the coming weeks – ahead of President-Elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.
In a bid to be cautious, Israel is reportedly preparing for potential retaliation from Iran, Axios reports.
Earlier this month, Trump held an Oval Office meeting where he was ‘talked out of’ launching strikes on Iran after a previous UN report showed a massive increase in nuclear stockpiles in breach of the Obama-era pact which Trump abandoned in 2018.
Defence sources told The New York Times that Trump asked for options on a bombardment – likely to have targeted Iran’s foremost nuclear facility, Natanz.
And just last week, a report by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) showed Iran has fired up advanced uranium centrifuges installed at its underground Natanz site.
Tehran was revealed to be pumping nuclear fuel into high-tech IR-2m machines at Natanz, in contravention of an international deal to only use first generation IR-1 machines.
The assassination of Fakhrizadeh has lead many to speculate that he is ‘Iran’s nuclear Qassem Soleimani’.
Soleimani, a major general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was assassinated in a US drone strike in January this year.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once warned the world to ‘remember that name’
The deputy leader of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah movement said on Friday that the response for the assassination of Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was in Iran’s hands.
‘We condemn this heinous attack and see that the response to this crime is in the hands of those concerned in Iran,’ Sheikh Naim Qassem said in an interview with Al Manar television.
He said Fakhrizadeh was killed by ‘those sponsored by America and Israel’ and said the assassination was part of a war on Iran and the region. Iran pointed the finger at Israel after Fakhrizadeh was killed in an ambush near the Iranian capital Tehran on Friday. Israel declined to comment.
Earlier this month, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said Iran’s allies in the region should be in a state of high readiness in case of any ‘American or Israeli folly’ during the remainder of U.S. President Donald Trump’s term.
Asked whether Israel could attack Lebanon during that time, Qassem said he did not believe so but that if it did Hezbollah was ‘fully prepared’ for a confrontation.
Israel and Hezbollah last fought a war in 2006.
Qassem said it was unlikely there would be a direct strike on Iran as it would ‘ignite the whole region’.
‘We cannot rule out the possibility of a limited attack and the Iranians are ready for this and more, but I don’t see an all-out war on the horizon,’ he said.
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