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The Morning Dispatch: An Assassination in Iran
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The Morning Dispatch: An Assassination in Iran

Plus: A conversation with some of the women of the GOP's freshman congressional class.

Happy Monday! We at Morning Dispatch HQ want to extend a hearty thank you to James Sutton, whose internship came to an end last week. He was an enormous help with this newsletter every day, and will be missed!

And no, we don’t want to talk about the game last night.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Mohsen Fakhrizadeh—an Iranian scientist known for his significant involvement in the country’s nuclear program—was killed in an ambush attack over the weekend. Iranian officials have insinuated Israel was behind the attack; Israeli officials have yet to comment.

  • Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko—who claimed a sixth term earlier this year following an election widely viewed as illegitimate—reportedly said he would step down once the country adopts a new constitution. It’s unclear as of now what that process would look like.

  • President-elect Joe Biden suffered a few hairline fractures in his foot over the weekend after slipping while playing with his dog. Biden’s doctor said the president-elect will “likely require a walking boot for several weeks.”

  • Biden announced senior members of his White House communications staff on Sunday. Deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield will become White House communications director, while Obama administration alum Jen Psaki will serve as White House press secretary.

  • President Trump officially pardoned Michael Flynn—his former national security adviser—on Wednesday. Flynn pleaded guilty in December 2017 to lying to the FBI about the contents of his communications with the Russian ambassador.

  • The Supreme Court voted 5-4 to block New York from instituting new coronavirus restrictions on the number of attendees allowed at religious services. “The regulations cannot be viewed as neutral because they single out houses of worship for especially harsh treatment,” the majority opinion reads.

  • Initial jobless claims increased by 30,000 week-over-week to 778,000 in the week ending November 21, the Labor Department reported on Wednesday. More than 20 million people remained on some form of unemployment insurance as of the week ending November 7, compared with just under 1.5 million people during the comparable week in 2019.

  • New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Sunday that approximately 200,000 students in the city—primarily pre-K and elementary school students—will return to in-person learning next week. School closures in the city will no longer rely on the 3 percent test positivity threshold negotiated with teachers unions.

  • President Trump’s ongoing efforts to overturn the results of the election continue to sputter. Wisconsin over the weekend completed the limited recount requested by the Trump campaign, and President-elect Joe Biden’s lead in the state grew by 87 votes. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Saturday rejected a GOP effort to invalidate 2.5 million ballots in the Keystone State, and, one day earlier, Trump-appointed Judge Stephanos Bibas rejected a separate Trump campaign lawsuit in Pennsylvania. “Voters, not lawyers, choose the President,” Bibas wrote.

  • The United States confirmed 143,301 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 11.1 percent of the 1,286,770 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 829 deaths were attributed to the virus on Sunday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 266,009. According to the COVID Tracking Project, 93,219 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19.

Iranian Nuclear Scientist Killed in Friday Ambush

Prominent Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh—long considered the father of Iran’s nuclear program—was killed in an ambush on Friday. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said there were “serious indications” that Israel was responsible for the attack, but Israeli officials have thus far declined comment and no country has yet claimed responsibility. 

No matter the culprit, the killing brings the Islamic Republic to a crossroads, as Fakhrizadeh is just the latest domino to fall in a series of covert attacks on Tehran’s top officials this year. The United States killed top military general Qassem Suleimani in an airstrike in January, and Israeli agents took out the deputy emir of al-Qaeda, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, in the streets of Tehran just a few months later.

Fakhrizadeh’s assassination is particularly notable for its timing, just months before the Biden administration—likely to be more amenable to Iranian interests than its predecessor was—is set to come into power. If Iran responds to Fakhrizadeh’s death with a state-sponsored attack on the United States or one of its allies, the country would almost certainly be jeopardizing the possibility of sanctions relief that would come with President-elect Biden’s proposed reentry into the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal. President Trump left the JCPOA in 2018.

“To restore its economy Iran must agree to either a full or partial return to the Iran nuclear deal,” Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the Wall Street Journal. But “to restore deterrence and regime pride, Iran must avenge the deaths of Fakhrizadeh and Soleimani. The latter will significantly complicate the former.”

Still, some experts fear Iranian military retaliation of some sort remains a possibility. “Iran has attacked or tried to attack Israeli diplomats before, most recently in Georgia, India, and Thailand,” Dr. Michael Rubin.  a former Pentagon official and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, told The Dispatch. “The high profile of Qassem Suleimani and Fakhrizadeh, however, likely means Iran will try to make a more spectacular attack.”

“I suspect there will be tremendous pressure to stage an assassination of a prominent Israeli or American scientist or academic, or someone who served in the Trump administration,” Rubin continued, pointing to State Department officials Brian Hook or Elliott Abrams as potential targets for Iranian agents or their proxies.

Trump reportedly sought advice a few weeks ago regarding a potential strike on Iran in the waning months of his presidency; an attack against American officials would certainly cause him to revisit those conversations.

For that reason, and several others, Alex Vatanka—director of the Iran program at the Middle Eastern Institute—is less sure Iran will take the bait. “There was no revenge after Qassem Suleimani,” he told The Dispatch. “Sure, they fired off a number of ballistic missiles into [U.S. forces]. But at the end of the day, they announced beforehand they were going to hit the American bases in Iraq so [everybody] could get out in time.” These attacks were “more symbolic than anything else,” he added.

Vatanka said Iranian hard-liners’ thirst for retaliation is unlikely to sway the regime from its main priority: persuading the United States to scale back its sweeping economic sanctions. “Anybody who really runs the show into Iran agrees that they need to get these sanctions lifted off their backs as soon as they can,” he said. “And there’s only one way to do that, and that’s to start talking to the next administration.”

This string of attacks has certainly rattled the Islamic Republic. But it is unclear whether Fakhrizadeh’s death in particular will have any long-term impacts on Iran’s nuclear program. “Not all nuclear scientists are equal,” Rubin said. “Fakhrizadeh’s death destroys a wealth of personal knowledge that cannot be readily replicated, even as Iranian authorities try.”

“The resulting paranoia will also undermine the program as every nuclear scientist will wonder whether their rivals or ambitious subordinates could be the ones who will leak their roles and locations to those who might kill them,” Rubin said.

Gary Samore, who served as the “weapons of mass destruction czar” in the Obama administration, believes the killing of Fakhrizadeh will not have much of an impact on Iran’s nuclear program because the Islamic Republic “is not—as far as we know—currently conducting research and development on nuclear weapons.”

“Instead,” Samore continued, “the focus is on development of more advanced and efficient centrifuge machines for enrichment of uranium, which Fakhrizadeh was not involved in.” The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported earlier this month Iran had a low-enriched uranium stockpile of 2,442.9 kilograms, 12 times larger than the amount permitted under the terms of the now-defunct JCPOA.

Samore warned that Fakhrizadeh’s killing “might strengthen the hard-liners, who oppose any near-term nuclear deal that allows President Rouhani to take credit for getting sanctions relief.” With Iranian presidential elections slated to take place in June 2021 (and Rouhani subject to term limits), Biden will have a narrow window to strike a deal with Tehran before the new president takes office and possibly steers policy in a different direction.

However the next few weeks and months play out, Rubin fears that a Biden administration won’t let reality stand in the way of a desire to pursue diplomacy with the Islamic Republic. “Iran to Team Biden is equivalent to North Korea to Trump’s team,” he argued, predicting that  “the results won’t be much different.”

GOP Women Narrow Democratic Majority in the House

Two years after the 2018 midterm elections devastated the ranks of Republican women in the House, female GOP candidates across the country defied polls and regained critical congressional seats. At least 28 Republican women won House races this year—doubling their numbers in the chamber—and at least nine of those women flipped blue congressional districts red.

These successful candidates are as diverse as the areas of the country they represent, running on an assortment of issues from slashing regulations, to promoting local industries, to fighting socialism as it exists in our federal government. Charlotte recently spoke with several of these representatives-elect—Ashley Hinson of Iowa, Michelle Fischbach of Minnesota, Stephanie Bice of Oklahoma, and Nancy Mace of South Carolina—about their races and the state of fiscal conservatism going forward. Here are some highlights:

Why is the diversity of this GOP freshman class so important?

“Our freshman class is very representative of the country. You have women, you have veterans, you have minorities,” Ashley Hinson said, adding that intellectual diversity is another important hallmark of the incoming class. “The variety of perspectives under one roof is broad. And I think that’s fine. And that’s what we need to get back to understanding and accepting in this country—it’s okay to have disagreements, even with people you mostly agree with.”

Stephanie Bice, in addition to being the first Iranian American elected to Congress, will also be the first female class president representing 42 incoming Republicans after being chosen by her peers during the House orientation. “There were two women who ran for that position, myself and Michelle Park Steel. I think it’s only fitting that, in the 100th anniversary year of women’s right to vote, the largest incoming freshman class women on the GOP side would be represented by a woman,” she said. 

“Republican women doubled our numbers during this cycle and I’m reminded that it’s not just Democratic women who are breaking glass ceilings,” said Nancy Mace. “Republican women have a place in history for breaking barriers as well.”

What are your thoughts on another coronavirus relief bill? 

To Michelle Fischbach, coronavirus relief and economic recovery should be the first thing on the agenda for the incoming Congress. “Democrats passed, particularly in the House, some really ridiculous liberal wishlist bills. What we really need to be doing with those bills is really focusing them, looking at small businesses that have suffered. We need to target that relief and make sure we’re helping people who need it.”

“Several packages proposed this year, that the House passed and knew were going nowhere, were full of Washington pork. Things that were not even related to COVID relief. I think that’s exactly why people are upset with politicians in Washington, D.C. right now, because they’d rather play politics and pander to their base, rather than doing what we absolutely need to get done right now—which is providing targeted relief to families, businesses, and workers,” Hinson said. 

What are your plans for reducing the national debt and deficit? 

“For decades, both sides have made deals to increase spending in one area in exchange for an increase in spending in another area. No one has been held accountable for this spending. Now we’re facing an enormous crisis, an unprecedented challenge, and the problem is getting worse not better,” Mace said. “We’ve gotta ensure that no matter what happens in the next couple months that we take it seriously and that we find measured ways, over time, to cut spending and balance the budget.”

“In Oklahoma we’re a balanced budget state, which means you can’t spend what you don’t have, which is unlike the federal budget,” said Bice. “Where are ways that we can streamline government? Where can we reduce duplicity to save money? How do we fund core services but make sure we’re doing it in a way that we’re not wasting taxpayer dollars?”

“In the Minnesota Senate, I was always a proponent and carried the bill of zero-based budgeting,” said Fischbach. “What that really does is force officials and the government and the legislative bodies to look at what we’re spending money on. That’s one of the things we need to do at the federal level. We continue to spend and spend and spend.” 

Worth Your Time

  • Tim Alberta’s latest for Politico is the story of, as he puts it, “Michigan’s fake voter fraud scandal.” There have been no shortage of post-election shenanigans in Michigan, a state Joe Biden won by nearly 155,000 votes: Republicans on the Wayne County canvassing board initially refused to certify the county’s election results, and President Trump invited GOP members of the state’s legislature to the White House for a meeting. But Aaron Van Langevelde, a relatively anonymous GOP election official, put an end to it all last week. “In the end, it wasn’t a senator or a judge or a general who stood up to the leader of the free world,” Alberta writes. “There was no dramatic, made-for-Hollywood collision of cosmic egos. Rather, the death knell of Trump’s presidency was sounded by a baby-faced lawyer, looking over his glasses on a grainy Zoom feed on a gloomy Monday afternoon, reading from a statement that reflected a courage and moral clarity that has gone AWOL from his party, pleading with the tens of thousands of people watching online to understand that some lines can never be uncrossed.”

  • In a three-part series for the Carroll Times Herald, reporter Jared Strong tells the story of a group of friends in Iowa who contracted COVID-19 after a neighborhood game of euchre. “It had been about two weeks since [Joan] invited a small group of her closest friends over to her house for a game of cards, when they talked about this and that and ate pie, and her best friend Nina helped her play because it seemed like forever since her arthritic fingers had worked the way they should,” Strong writes. “On Sept. 26, daughter Barb, who had recovered from the virus, got a phone call that Joan was fading fast. None of her family could be with her in those final hours and minutes. A nurse aide named Hannah held Joan’s hand as she took her last breaths and was gone.”

  • A recent study from Constança Esteves-Sorenson and Robert Broce analyzed how compensation impacts one’s intrinsic motivation for various tasks. Brigitte Madrian spoke to the studies’ authors in a piece for The MIT Press Reader. “Traditional economic models posit that paying the mouse to eat a cookie will increase the reward from cookie eating, encouraging the mouse to eat more cookies,” Madrian writes. “But psychologists offer a compelling counterargument: that paying the mouse to eat cookies will crowd out the mouse’s intrinsic pleasure from such consumption, reducing the likelihood that the mouse will want to eat cookies in the future absent compensation.”

  • In a piece for Tablet, Armin Rosen takes a look at how the Drudge Report—once “the most coveted and agenda-setting real estate in right-of-center media”—has transformed over the past several years. “The Drudge Report once cycled through 40-50 links in a single five-hour period,” Rosen writes. “The page is now updated only once or twice a day and almost never reacts to breaking news, as if it’s being run by someone who simply doesn’t care anymore. Traffic has reportedly lagged, with Comscore data suggesting a 45% plunge in the year before this past September.”

Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • In his latest French Press (🔒), David expressed gratitude for the strength of American democracy. “For the last three weeks, the most powerful man in the world—the person who commands arguably the most powerful military in the history of the world and retains the devotion of legions of followers—rejected the legitimacy of an election, persuaded tens of millions of his fellow citizens to reject the legitimacy of that same election, and yet never once possessed a remotely plausible path to retaining power,” he wrote. “Behold the majesty of the American system of government.”

  • John Bolton, who served as national security adviser under Donald Trump from 2018-19, writes that conservatives need to portray more optimism and confidence moving forward, more “morning in America” than “American carnage.” He writes: “We can thereby regain the voters Trump alienated, but also keep those whom he attracted. Blue-collar families who left the Democratic party in 1980 were called ‘Reagan Democrats,’ and those who have voted for Trump are essentially their contemporary counterparts. The proposed ‘conversation’ may be lengthy, but there is every reason to believe it will succeed with enough work.”

Let Us Know

Did you do any Black Friday shopping over the weekend (virtual or otherwise)? What were some of the best deals you got? (Some of your Morning Dispatchers are drawing blanks on Christmas gifts this year.)

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Photo by Iranian Defense Ministry/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.