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December 1, 2020

Middle East Roundup: Israel Suspected in Killing of Iranian Nuclear Scientist

Last week, an Iranian nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was gunned down in the outskirts of Tehran. Sources speaking to the New York Times cited Israel as the culprit for the killing. Please see our analysis and breakdown of these events below:  

Israel Suspected in Assassination of Iranian Nuclear Scientist 

  • Mohsen Fakhrizadeh Was Gunned Down in the Outskirts of Tehran

    • On Friday, November 27, one of Iran’s top nuclear scientists was shot and killed in an ambush in the outskirts of Tehran. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was one of Iran’s leading nuclear experts and was intimately involved in Iran’s past nuclear weapons work that was halted around 2003, according to U.S. intelligence.

    • There are contradicting reports on how Fakhrizadeh was shot. According to the New York Times, a hit team of 12 assassins was able to stop his car and open fire. However, Iran’s Fars News Agency stated that a remote or satellite controlled machine gun outfitted on the back of a car was responsible for gunning down Mr. Fakhrizadeh. 

    • While Israel has officially denied carrying out the assassination, multiple sources speaking to the New York Times cited Israel as the culprit for the killing. 
  • The Iranian Public and Their Leaders Irate, But Signs of Restraint Remain
    • In his first public comments on Mr. Fakhrizadeh’s assassination, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei declared that Iran’s first priority was “investigating this crime and definitive punishment of its perpetrators.” However, his statement did not signify any sense of urgency to retaliate nor did it name Israel as the perpetrator. 

    • Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, for his part, suggested in a televised speech that Iran “ will respond to the assassination of Martyr Fakhrizadeh in a proper time.” Rouhani continued, saying “the Iranian nation is smarter than falling into the trap of the Zionists.

    • The response of hardliners to the killing was summarized by an Iranian conservative political analyst, Foad Izadi, who said “if you don’t respond to this level of terrorism, they may repeat it because now they know Iran won’t react. There is obviously a problem when you see these types of things repeating.”

    • Following the killing, protestors gathered in front of government buildings chanting “our demand is one word: vengeance, vengeance.” Some carried a banner saying: “Assassination is the result of compromise and negotiation.” Iran’s conservative parliament, known as the Majlis, also released a statement signed by all its members calling for a halt to international inspections of the country’s nuclear facilities as a proportionate response to the killing.

    • A growing list of countries and international bodies condemned the killing, including the UAE and Bahrain who have each normalized with Israel over the last few months. A spokesman for the UN Secretary-General also lambasted the attack, as did a spokesperson for the European Union, who released a statement Saturday calling the attack “a criminal act” that “runs counter to the principle of respect for human rights in the E.U. stands for.”

Key Takeaways

  • Fakhrizadeh was Important, but not Irreplaceable

    • Fakhrizadeh had a deep reservoir of nuclear knowledge given his past direction of Iran’s nuclear weapons research, which was shelved in the early 2000s. However, he was far from irreplaceable. Hundreds or thousands of Iranian scientists and engineers remain in the pipeline who can push forward Iran’s nuclear advancements, if ordered to do so.

    • Iran has long had the capability to produce a nuclear weapon, with or without Fakhrizadeh. But for a variety of factors, including the prior success of multilateral diplomacy, Iran has not made the political decision to pursue a nuclear weapon. Continuing on the present path of confrontation, sabotage and assassination risks changing that calculus.

    • Israel has a long history of killing Iranian scientists, but none of their attempts have halted Iran’s missile or nuclear program. On the contrary, they accelerated as a result. The Fakhrizadeh killing will likely have no tangible, long-term upside and significant downsides.

    • It is also important to note that contrary to some media assertions, Iran does not have an active nuclear weapons program, as has been confirmed by a 2007 U.S. intelligence assessment and a State Department compliance report unveiled during the Trump administrations. During a Congressional hearing, Trump’s former DNI Dan Coats said, “we do not believe Iran is currently undertaking the key activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device. This assessment was confirmed in the DNI’s 2019 Annual Threat Assessment. 
  • The Real Target of the Attack was the JCPOA
    • Forces within Israel and the U.S. have been attempting to box President Elect Biden into Trump’s failed policy while closing off any potential diplomatic off-ramps. This assassination only bolsters this strategy. Israel and its allies within the Trump administration are systematically closing the political space within Iran for its leaders to negotiate with the West and for Iran and the U.S. to return to mutual compliance with the Iran nuclear deal.

    • As a result of the killing, Iran will be sure to drive a much harder bargain in subsequent negotiations with the United States. This is not because Iranian leaders are opposed to talks, but because with every proactive action by the US and Israel, it becomes more politically costly for Iranian politicians to advocate for negotiations when Iran’s military leaders are being assassinated abroad and its scientists are being killed in the streets of Tehran.

    • On the other hand, The Trump administration and Netanyahu’s attempts at limiting Biden’s options may have strengthened his commitment to return to the JCPOA and to do so swiftly. President Elect Biden was already pressed for time given Iran’s presidential election in June. Odds had already favored Iran electing someone opposed to Rouhani’s agenda of engagement with the West – the assassination has likely increased the odds of such an outcome, barring new developments. Biden and his team will need to move quickly if they are to salvage the JCPOA against these accumulating headwinds.
  • What to Watch for in Tehran
    • The Majlis’ posturing will have little direct effect on Iranian policy, but points more to the growing frustration with the Rouhani administration’s approach. This latest security breach is embarrassing for Iran, especially after the killing of Soleimani and the sabotage at the Natanz nuclear facility in July 2020.

    • While the signals coming out of Iran’s key decision-makers suggest that Iran may continue implementing “strategic patience,” the pressure from hardliners will continue to compound in the wake of Israeli provocations and the perceived failures of Iran’s security establishment. Iran will most likely continue to try and wait out Trump, but with each provocative action, the likelihood hardliners are able to convince Khamenei to do something rash increases. 
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