international affairs

What We Know About the Assassination of Iran’s Top Nuclear Scientist

A view of the scene where Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s chief military nuclear scientist, was killed in an attack in Absard, Iran, on November 27. Photo: Handout/Iranian State TV/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Iran’s top nuclear scientist and the father of its nuclear weapons program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was assassinated in a daytime ambush on Friday, according to Iranian State Media. Fakhrizadeh was apparently fatally wounded after a car he was traveling in was attacked by armed gunmen and an apparent truck bomb as it drove through a town west of Tehran. Iranian officials have blamed Israel for the attack, with foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif calling it an act of state-sponsored terrorism and the country’s top military commander vowing “harsh retaliation” against anyone involved.

Fakhrizadeh led Iran’s efforts to develop an atomic warhead before the country’s nuclear weapons program was officially halted in 2003, and intelligence officials in Israel and the U.S. have long alleged that the program has continued in secret — with Fakhrizadeh, who was also a senior officer in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, still in charge. (Iran has always denied that it has any intention of developing a nuclear weapon.)

The New York Times reports that “one American official — along with two other intelligence officials — said that Israel was behind the attack on the scientist.” The Times also points out that Fakhrizadeh “had long been the No. 1 target of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service.” Israel has declined to comment on the attack, but Mossad is believed to have carried out numerous covert assassination and sabotage operations targeting nuclear scientists and facilities inside Iran over the past decade — though Israel has never directly admitted responsibility for those efforts. A few weeks ago, the Times reported that in August, Israel had killed, at the bequest of the U.S., a top Al Qaeda leader who had been hiding in Iran.

Was the U.S. involved?

It is not clear whether or not the U.S. had any involvement in, or advance knowledge of the strike on Fakhrizadeh. White House, Pentagon, and CIA officials all declined to comment about the attack on Friday, while President Trump retweeted an Israeli journalist calling Fakhrizadeh’s death “a major psychological and professional blow for Iran.” Earlier this month, Trump reportedly asked his senior advisers if there were any military options for striking Iran’s main nuclear site, but was apparently dissuaded after he was warned that such a strike could lead to broader conflict. At the time, however, Trump administration officials told the Times that the outgoing president might still be considering other options for striking Iranian assets. The Wall Street Journal adds that:

The killing came after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit last week to Israel, where he met Mr. Netanyahu and Yossi Cohen, the director of Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad. During his trip, Mr. Pompeo wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a strike against Iran, saying all options were on the table …

The killing also comes months after another major act of sabotage against Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, when an explosion caused severe damage to a centrifuge assembly hall at Iran’s main nuclear site, Natanz. At the time, Israeli leaders said they were planning to carry out a series of covert operations meant to undermine Iran’s nuclear and missile program[.]

The Times reports that while U.S. officials would not comment on Fakhrizadeh’s assassination, “some American officials argued that the death of Mr. Fakhrizadeh, the latest in a string of such mysterious killings of Iran’s top nuclear scientists, would send a chilling message to the country’s other top scientists working on that program: If we can get him, we can get you, too.”

In January, President Trump ordered a brazen, extrajudicial strike outside Baghdad that killed Iran’s top military commander, Qasem Soleimani, prompting an international crisis. Iran later retaliated with ballistic missile strikes on two U.S. bases in Iraq, injuring more than 100 U.S. service members.

Iran hawks like Pompeo have effectively had carte blanche inside the Trump administration. In 2018, against the wishes of most of America’s foreign allies, Trump withdrew the U.S. from the landmark Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration in 2015, and reimposed harsh sanctions on the country that have done significant, widespread economic damage inside Iran. The 2015 nuclear deal was strongly opposed by Israel and Iran’s Arab Gulf rivals, and those countries have been Trump’s closest foreign allies during his presidency.

How will Fakhrizadeh’s death affect Iran’s nuclear program?

Iran has been working to rebuild its stockpile of enriched uranium since the de-facto collapse of the nuclear accord. A few weeks ago, the International Atomic Energy Agency announced that Iran had amassed 12 times the amount of enriched uranium it was permitted to have under the nuclear deal, but it’s not clear when the country will have enough fuel to be able to build a nuclear weapon, or if it can once it does.

As far as what impact the killing of Fakhrizadeh will have on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the Journal reports that:

Fakhrizadeh’s death won’t dent Iran’s ability to continue to accrue enriched uranium, which can be refined into weapons-grade nuclear fuel, or its work on ballistic missiles potentially capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. But officials who have been involved in nuclear diplomacy with Iran say Mr. Fakhrizadeh was a crucial figure in Iranian nuclear work over the past two decades, with unparalleled knowledge of who had done what and the full trust of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. They said he was effectively the manager of Iran’s nuclear-weaponization program, deciding where to put people, how to recruit them, how to keep the program secret and how, after Iran shelved its main nuclear-weapons effort, to retain knowledge and capabilities.

Speaking with the Washington Post on Friday, Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, added that “Fakhrizadeh likely knew more about Iran’s nuclear program than any living human. Losing his leadership, knowledge, and institutional memory is undoubtedly a blow to the Islamic Republic.” However, Atlantic Council fellow Holly Dagres noted that “Iran’s nuclear know-how isn’t dependent on one man,” and she doubted that his death would do any permanent damage to Iran’s nuclear program.

The reaction in Iran, and the complications for Biden

Inside Iran on Friday, state media worked to elevate Fakhrizadeh to national hero status, but the public reaction may not be as widespread as it was after Soleimani was killed, as Fakhrizadeh was a far more shadowy figure and had essentially no public profile within the country. The assassination is likely to further empower hardline sentiment within the Iranian regime, however, and particularly for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Even if there isn’t a military retaliation or escalation over the next few months, one definite impact of Fakhrizadeh’s death will be the complications it creates for the next U.S. administration.

President-elect Biden has vowed to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, but it was already far from clear if that would be possible. Indeed, sabotaging the Biden administration’s designs on peace with Iran may have been a major selling point for whoever planned Fakhrizadeh’s assassination. Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser under President Obama who helped lead the U.S. efforts to secure the nuclear deal, tweeted Friday that the attack on Fakhrizadeh was “an outrageous action aimed at undermining diplomacy between an incoming U.S. administration and Iran.” Speaking with CNN, Washington Institute fellow Simon Henderson also pointed out that Israel might be trying to “get away” with the assassination now because it knows it wouldn’t be able to after January 20. Meanwhile, even if Iran doesn’t decide to retaliate, Trump and his allies still have plenty of time to throw a lot more poison into the diplomatic well.

Iran’s Top Nuclear Scientist Assassinated: What We Know