Dec 1, 2020

Iranian scientist assassinated.

Iranian scientist assassinated.

Plus, some reader feedback and our hospitals in crisis.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 11 minutes.

The assassination of an Iranian scientist. Plus, instead of a reader question, some really worthwhile reader feedback to yesterday’s edition.

Quick hits.

  1. Arizona and Wisconsin both certified their election results — and Joe Biden’s victory — yesterday, becoming the last two of the six states where Trump has contested the election results to finalize their vote counts.
  2. The Trump campaign has raised more than $150 million since Election Day, asking donors to help it contest the results of the election across the country. The campaign’s best single month of fundraising during the election was $81 million in September.
  3. A bipartisan group of senators is preparing a $908 billion stimulus plan in an effort to break the partisan logjam on another round of coronavirus relief.
  4. Dr. Scott Atlas, the controversial coronavirus advisor to President Trump, resigned yesterday before the 130-day window in which he could serve as a special government employee came to an end.
  5. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), the most conservative member of the Democratic Senate, said yesterday that he would not abolish the filibuster under any circumstances during a Biden presidency, meaning the president-elect will need to muster 60 Senate votes to pass any major legislation.

Bernstein joins Biden.

This summer, I interviewed Jared Bernstein in a Friday edition for paid subscribers. At the time, I noted that Bernstein — who was working informally as an economic adviser to Joe Biden — “is likely to be one of the most important economic voices in America come January 2021, when Joe Biden will potentially be sworn in as president — and he would be at the top of the list to join his administration.” Yesterday, it was announced that Bernstein was joining the Biden administration as one of his economic advisers. I’ve unlocked our fully-transcribed interview for anyone who wants to read it.

Read the interview

What D.C. is talking about.

An assassination in Iran. On Friday, an Iranian scientist who the West had long suspected was behind the development of Iran’s nuclear weapons program was killed outside Tehran. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh died in a hospital after a group of armed assassins fired on his vehicle. One report indicated that remote weapons may have been used, including a pick-up truck with an unmanned machine gun that self-detonated shortly after the attack.

Shortly after the attack, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said there were “serious indications of [an] Israeli attack.” Israeli and U.S. officials have so far declined to comment.

For nearly two decades, the United States, Europe and Israel have been working together to thwart nuclear proliferation in Iran. President Barack Obama entered the Iran nuclear deal, which relieved harsh financial sanctions on Iran in exchange for oversight of its nuclear programs — an arrangement that traded economic relief for stopping Iran from creating a nuclear weapon.

President Trump pulled America out of the deal in 2018, citing Iran’s funding of terrorism across the Middle East, a poor verification process in the oversight of the program, and “sunset clauses” that he viewed as too relaxed — essentially making the case that he wanted to prevent Iran from ever having a nuclear weapon, not just until 2030 when the deal expired. Once the U.S. withdrew from the deal, it re-imposed its financial sanctions on Iran, and Iran began to stockpile uranium in amounts exceeding the deal’s limits.

President-elect Joe Biden has promised to re-enter the deal, but the assassination of Fakhrizadeh is sure to complicate things — and is the most tense moment in the standoff between Iran and the United States since a Trump-ordered strike killed Qassem Soleimani, the country’s most powerful military leader, earlier this year.

What the right is saying.

The right has heralded the assassination, arguing that it proves Israel and the United States’ strength, intelligence and precision in the region — and that it reinforces to Iran there is a cost to pursuing development of nuclear weapons.

“The 2015 deal was supposed to restrain Iran’s nuclear-weapons development and moderate its regional behavior,” The Wall Street Journal editorial board said. “It has done neither. But now the architects of that deal blame not Iran for its behavior but whoever is trying to slow Iran’s nuclear progress… The Obama crowd’s continuing illusions about their Iranian diplomacy shows that they have learned nothing in exile. Yet if Israel did plan the assassination, it surely did so because it fears that the same illusions about Iran are returning to U.S. power with the Biden Administration, and so it must act on its own.”

In Hot Air, the conservative blogger Allahpundit argued that the assassination made sense given the expectations around the Joe Biden administration.

“At last check, Iran had a stockpile of enriched uranium 12 times the limit imposed under that deal,” they wrote. “If you’re under immediate threat from an Iranian bomb and you don’t trust Sleepy Joe to do anything about it, you have little choice but to take matters into your hands… What set Fakhrizadeh apart was his work on miniaturizing nuclear weapons so that they’d fit in a warhead on a ballistic missile. One way to stop Iran’s nuclear program is try to take out the facilities where the uranium is enriched; another is to take out the systems for delivering the payload after enriched uranium is converted into a bomb.”

Allahpundit also noted that there are “rumblings” Trump may “have something bigger planned for Iran” before he leaves office, and reports emerged last week that he asked his team for options on striking Iran’s enrichment facilities, but he was talked out of it. “Bombing Iran risks regional war, he was told. It would also be ‘off-brand,’ shall we say, at a moment when Trump is looking to extricate America from its involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. His nationalist fans want a lighter U.S. footprint in the Middle East, not new interventions.”

Reuel Marc Gerecht called it “another bold strike” and praised Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency that is equivalent to America’s CIA.

“The evident huge increase in Mossad operations inside Iran isn’t only a byproduct of President Trump’s sympathy,” he wrote. “It is an early sign of a new post-American order. Mr. Biden and his officials may try to twist Jerusalem’s arm to go easier on Iran. Good luck. The president-elect’s looming defense cuts will be more telling. The Middle East is all about power politics, and Mossad has begun to show what a committed First World intelligence service can do against a Third World Islamist state whose own security apparatus is increasingly decrepit.”

What the left is saying.

The left has opposed the assassination, saying it’s clear it was coordinated between Trump and Netanyahu and that it will undermine an incoming Biden administration and take us one step closer to war. In The Nation, Jeet Heer argued that it’s difficult not to see the assassination as an effort to sabotage the Biden administration’s plans to re-enter the nuclear agreement.

“Netanyahu can read a calendar, and he knew that the time to constrain Biden was running out,” Heer wrote. “The final weeks of Trump’s administration are crucial not just for Netanyahu but also for other opponents of the Iran deal, including allies like Saudi Arabia. Ample reporting of high-level communication between the Trump White House and its counterparts in Israel and Saudi Arabia makes plausible the idea that there is a concerted effort to create a crisis that will sabotage Biden’s diplomacy before it even starts. Pompeo recently visited Israel, giving a thumbs up to West Bank settlements. Is it possible that trip was part of a hidden quid pro quo that includes the killing of Fakhrizadeh? Presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner is currently in the Middle East meeting Saudi leaders. Again, the timing of the visit raises questions about possible secret deals.”

In Vox, Alex Ward warned that the assassination could set Biden up for a foreign policy crisis early on in his administration.

“Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has already blamed Israel for it — and added his own threat,” Ward noted. “‘Iran will surely respond to the martyrdom of our scientist at the proper time,’ he said in a Saturday speech. If Iran were to respond to these assassinations by escalating attacks on US personnel in Iraq or by attempting to assassinate US or Israeli officials, it would pose a major challenge for a Biden administration… All of this, of course, would lead the US and Iran further down the path toward war and away from a possible diplomatic resolution. ‘Such responses are likely to undermine the chances for diplomacy with Biden and easing of US sanctions,’ Ellie Geranmayeh, an Iran analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told me.”

In American Prospect, Keyvan Shafiei warned of a “dangerous American penchant for conducting extrajudicial killings” of foreign officials and citizens.

“If the United States continues to behave unlawfully on the international stage, it is only a matter of time before other countries begin to emulate this behavior,” Shafiei wrote. “And why would they not, when the supposed beacons of democracy themselves flagrantly transgress the norms that they expect others to abide by?”

My take.

It’s hard for me to sympathize with Iranian officials or military leaders. Even Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who is a moderate compared to his peers, has called Israel a “cancerous tumor” in the last few years — the kind of description that’s meant to invoke thoughts about how we handle tumors. Others have more explicitly called for wiping Jews and Israel off the face of the planet. And while the Iran nuclear deal signed in 2015 had kept Iran’s proliferation seemingly in check, it was no secret — even before Iran had their financial assets unfrozen — what they’d do with some of the money: fund terrorism. They haven’t disappointed.

But that doesn’t mean this assassination is a good thing. When Soleimani was killed, I told my readers that he was not a man we should have sympathy for. He was a bloodthirsty and cold-hearted killer responsible for an untold number of deaths as a military commander, many including innocent civilians, and was behind some of the harshest crackdowns on Iranian civilians that we know of.

Fakhrizadeh’s killing is different. This isn’t a military commander or someone with a known public profile, nor is it someone whose intention is widely understood. This is a scientist. The answer to whether this strike “works” or is a good thing is an answer we likely won’t have for months or even years. Will killing Fakhrizadeh give other Iranian scientists pause about working with the regime to pursue nuclear weapons? Of course. Is that a good thing? If you don’t want Iran to have nuclear weapons — and I don’t — then yes, it is. But at what cost?

My strongest feelings are aligned with Keyvan Shafiei’s, who worries about potential retribution for these killings — and the fact they have become far more common in the last decade under Obama and Trump. What happens when our enemies start killing our scientists, military officials or politicians in isolated attacks like this? What happens when Iran retaliates for Fakhrizadeh’s death in the coming weeks, or after the Biden administration takes over? What about the Iranian people, the ones protesting the regime in the streets who are weighed down by insurmountable U.S. economic sanctions, and have faced violence and death from their own government for their civil unrest?

However critical one is of the Iran nuclear agreement — and I have written critically about it in the past — the reality is that two years after pulling out of the deal, Iran has 12 times the enriched uranium (the crucial ingredient used in military nuclear weapons) they ever did when the deal was in place. In 2018, Iran pulled off a frighteningly sophisticated stealth missile attack in Saudi Arabia that avoided detection by Israel, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia until it was too late — a moment that drastically shifted our understanding of what Iran was capable of.

To recap: we pulled out of the deal, re-imposed financial sanctions, and now face an Iranian regime that’s closer to nuclear weapons and demonstrating some of its strongest military capabilities yet. All while the Iranian people suffering most from those sanctions are beaten and killed in the streets for protesting their government. As Iran’s weapons program apparently advances, and life for Iranian innocents worsens, the result is that we’re left with few options besides violent, extrajudicial attacks on scientists to slow down their pursuit of nuclear weapons. Now, an outgoing President Trump is openly contemplating a full-fledged airstrike that could upend the region and start a new war on his way out the door. It doesn’t inspire confidence in the stability of the moment — nor that we are containing Iran’s progress towards a nuclear weapon.

Reader feedback.

Instead of a reader question today, I wanted to share some of the really unique perspectives I got in response to yesterday’s newsletter. I also want to amend something I wrote, that I wish I had elaborated on more clearly in the newsletter. Yesterday, I noted that I had observed Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah remotely (via live stream and Zoom), and said “In an ideal world, these religious institutions would be pushing their congregations to practice their faith via Zoom or live stream and stick it out a few more months until a vaccine is widely available.”

Obvious to me, but not obvious in my writing and perhaps not to many of my readers, is that more observant Orthodox Jews could not simply observe the high holidays or Shabbat via Zoom and live stream, given that use of such electronics is often explicitly prohibited by religious law. It was a silly thing to suggest as a blanket solution for religious folks of all faiths — more practical suggestions for the Orthodox community would be something like state and local governments working with these communities to provide outdoor spaces for services. The thrust of my point was that my ideal world wouldn’t require the government having to enforce social distancing rules to slow the spread of COVID-19 because there would be enough public buy-in on the guidelines to observe them without enforcement.

With that being said, I’d like to share some reactions to yesterday’s newsletter.

Avital from Cedarhurst, New York, said “I think it's important to note that while secular, reform, and some conservative Jews could celebrate holidays over zoom, that is not the case for Orthodox Jews. I am glad that you found a way to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with your community safely from your home, but it is misleading to not mention that these options were not available for the huge Orthodox communities in New York.”

An ICU nurse who wrote in from Minnesota asked to remain anonymous but identified themselves as a “devout Christian.” From that perspective, they were happy with the Supreme Court decision, noting that “New York’s guidelines appeared targeted and unnecessarily harsh towards religious communities.” But as a nurse, they said “I’m beyond frustrated and just downright embarrassed at how some churches have responded to this. A global pandemic that’s threatening lives and livelihoods does not mean you get to carry out worship as if life is normal — because life is not normal and hasn’t been since March. We absolutely need our churches to remain open during this time, and I’m so thankful for the hope I have in Christ (in both life and death), but Christians have to remember that the rest of the world is watching our response. If churches are ignoring public health guidelines (generally applicable restrictions that are not singling out churches), that is sending the message that your physical health does not matter to churches. And as a nurse that angers me and saddens me.”

Dillon from Ft. Worth, Texas, said that my ideal world of Zoom or live stream events would be “unacceptable” from a Catholic perspective, especially for things like attending the sacraments. “From a secular perspective, pushing congregations to Zoom makes sense; from the perspective of the Church which honestly believes, to the world's confoundment, that its laws supercede the laws of others, that its sacraments are real and necessary, that eternity swallows up the temporal, that suffering is salvific, that the Church is not an institution among other institutions, not in the world as a place for ‘religious stuff’ but the Body of Christ itself which embraces all things and all times, private and public, secular and spiritual, cosmological and political, it does not make sense.”

Tzvi, an observant Jew from Brooklyn, said “calling them ‘compromises’ doesn't fully encompass what is being asked [of the Jewish community]. Religion isn't something one practices when they want to and give up when it's not convenient. When it was a matter of life or death, there was an argument to be made. That is now clearly not the case. You mentioned attending Rosh Hashanah services over zoom. If that was uplifting for you, that's good, and I'm glad you have that connection. But for the majority of religious Jews, using Zoom on Rosh Hashanah is considered one of the worst religious violations one can make. That's not a compromise. A compromise, like you explain, would be creating a guideline that allowed occupancy relative to the size of the room — a leniency granted even to restaurants where masking is impossible. Such compromise was never even attempted.”

A story that matters.

The third wave of COVID-19 is causing “burnover” amongst health care workers — the phenomenon often faced by firefighters when they are overtaken by a wildfire on all sides. The pandemic is forcing a growing number of nurses and doctors out of the industry at a time when they are needed most. ICU beds are at capacity in many states, personal protective equipment is again in short supply and staff shortages are increasing across the country — not just in isolated hot spots as they were during the first two waves. The dangerous, exhausting and demoralizing work in hospitals has left mental health clinics for workers in desperate demand while hospitals grasp for resources to support their badly strained workforces.


  • $1.6 billion. The amount of money USAID has allocated to less fortunate countries across the globe to help battle the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • 31%. The percentage of Republicans who say the 2020 election was “probably” or “definitely” free and fair, according to the latest Morning Consult poll.
  • 91%. The percentage of Democrats who say the 2020 election was “probably” or “definitely” free and fair, according to the latest Morning Consult poll.
  • 62%. The percentage of Republicans who say the 2020 election was “probably” or “definitely” not free and fair, according to the latest Morning Consult poll.
  • 5%. The percentage of Democrats who say the 2020 election was “probably” or “definitely” not free and fair, according to the latest Morning Consult poll.
  • 52%. The percentage of Republicans who say it is unlikely the election results will be overturned, according to the latest Morning Consult poll.
  • 18%. The percentage of Republicans who say it is very likely the election results will be overturned, according to the latest Morning Consult poll.
  • 11%. The percentage of Democrats who say it is very likely the election results will be overturned, according to the latest Morning Consult poll.
  • 28%. The percentage of Republicans who say Trump should not concede the election no matter what, according to the latest Morning Consult poll.

Last day!

Today is the last day to participate in the subscribe-to-donate drive I’m running. For the last week and until tonight, in honor of Giving Tuesday, I am giving half of all new subscription revenue to Heavenly HARVST, a charity that distributes food pouches with an 18-month shelf life in an effort to feed hungry Americans. It’s the first time I’ve ever done a drive of this kind in Tangle. More than $1,200 in donations are already headed that way thanks to the generous readers who subscribed in the last week — an incredible sum for a few days of work. If you’re already a subscriber, I encourage you to consider giving to Heavenly HARVST directly. If you’re not, let’s keep it rolling for one more day…

Subscribe now

Have a nice day.

A lot of doubt has been raised about our elections in the last month. As some of you know, I host a YouTube show called The Upside — which highlights one positive story a week that pushes back on the negative narratives in the news. Last week, I interviewed David Becker, an election security expert who I know to be honest, skeptical and critical. He caught my attention when he joined the chorus of people saying this was the most secure election ever, and I wanted to ask him why he felt that way — especially given that he’s criticized things like electronic voting in the past. You can check out his optimistic take on the 2020 election and our interview here. It’s a different voice than Tangle, and a bit of a softball interview, but he had some important insights into this year’s elections that I thought were worth sharing.

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