The assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh will not materially impact Iran’s nuclear program, but the killing is a sign that the United States and Israel are accelerating their covert strategy against Iran in the waning days of the Trump administration. Iran will respond in some form, although it will probably refrain from a hasty response that could transform the covert war with Israel and the United States on Iranian soil into an overt one.
Iran’s Defense Ministry and its Supreme National Security Council confirmed Fakhrizadeh’s assassination, saying unknown assailants attacked his car Nov. 27 in Damavand, outside of Tehran.
Fakhrizadeh, a former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp officer, has been compared to Robert Oppenheimer — the father of the U.S. atomic bomb — for his role in leading Iran’s AMAD Project that carried out research on developing an Iranian nuclear bomb.
Fakhrizadeh is the second architect of Iran’s deterrence and national security strategy slain since the Jan. 3 U.S. strike that killed Qassem Soleimani, who was the architect of Iran’s regional strategy with militias.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said that the attack had “serious indications of Israeli role.”
The most likely party responsible for the killing is Israel, acting with or without U.S. help, serving as another sign that Israel will probably accelerate its covert operations against Iran’s nuclear program in the waning months of the Trump administration and during the upcoming Biden administration in a bid to make potential U.S.-Iranian negotiations more difficult. Israel has a long history of assassinations and covert operations inside Iran.
Between 2010 and 2012, four Iranian nuclear scientists were assassinated at the height of international concern over Iran’s nuclear program. More recently, Israel showcased its operational capabilities in Tehran by assassinating al Qaeda’s Abu Muhammad al-Masri in August 2020. Israel was also likely involved in, or directly behind, two explosions in June and July at Iran’s Khojir missile complex and the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Facility. The degree to which the United States was involved and/or notified of the operation on Fakhrizadeh remains unclear, but the Trump administration is aiming to accelerate its so-called maximum pressure campaign against Iran in its final two months in office, and would likely have been supportive of any operation, assuming it was not directly involved. Israel and the Trump administration hope that incidents like these make negotiations more difficult.
The killing comes just two weeks after U.S. President Donald Trump asked for options against Iran’s nuclear program following the International Atomic Energy Agency’s latest quarterly report on Iran. Trump’s quick retweeting of posts reporting the incident suggests some level of U.S. involvement, knowledge or support.
Iran would not want to do anything to jeopardize the opening that it sees with the incoming Biden administration, which has said that it would reenter the JCPOA in return for Iran returning to compliance with its nuclear commitments.
Fakhrizadeh’s death will have little more than a symbolic impact on Iran’s current nuclear activities, but if Iran sought to return to a full-blown weapons program, his valuable experience would be lost. Project AMAD ran from 1989 until 2003. All publicly available indications from IAEA inspections suggest the initiative and any other similar projects so focused on nuclear weapons development remain largely dormant despite Iran’s continuation of its nuclear program related to uranium enrichment and civilian nuclear power.
The acceleration of those activities since May 2019, when Tehran stopped full implementation of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action following the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement in May 2018, did not involve its weapons program. Iran has maintained that all of the steps that it has taken since May 2019 are reversible should the United States reenter the agreement. This contrasts with the timing of the 2010-12 scientist assassinations, when the IAEA was unable to inspect Iran’s nuclear facilities. The explosion at Natanz nuclear enrichment facility likely will more significantly impact Iran’s nuclear program than the Nov. 27 assassination will, as it physically destroyed a new advanced centrifuge assembly facility that Iran had been building as a part of its response to leaving the JCPOA. Iran has since had to begin building a new underground one near Natanz.
Fakhrizadeh’s high profile will likely compel Iran to retaliate against Israel or the U.S. in some fashion, but as seen with the killing of Soleimani earlier this year, Tehran will seek to ensure that its response does not provoke a broader conflict with the United States and Iran that could lead to direct strikes in Iran or to open war.
This is particularly true since it would not want to do anything to jeopardize the opening that it sees with the incoming Biden administration, which has said that it would reenter the JCPOA in return for Iran returning to compliance with its nuclear commitments. On Nov. 18, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said that if the United States started implementing U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231 — the resolution lifting sanctions on Iran — then Iran would resume its commitments under the JCPOA.
Nonetheless, Iran’s retaliation against Israel will not necessarily be limited geographically to Israel, and could come months or even years down the road. Iran’s retaliation for the 2010-12 string of assassinations appears to have come in the form of attacks on Israeli diplomats in Georgia, India and Thailand in 2012 — nearly two years after the first assassination and the Stuxnet attack on Iran’s nuclear program. Possible Iranian options include cyberattacks, diplomatic attacks abroad, or missile or rocket attacks including from Iran’s allies in places like Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.
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