Who killed Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s nuclear chief? Israel is the likely suspect

Speculation about President Trump using his last weeks in office to lash out at Iran’s nuclear project missed the bigger story — that Israel would use the window of political opportunity to take action which might be hard to get away with under a Biden administration.

For COVID-era fans of the Israeli spy series, “Tehran,” on Apple+, the idea of Israeli agents pulling off an assassination inside Iran would not appear far-fetched. The killing early Friday of the top Iranian nuclear-weapon scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, could have been just another plot twist. On a dusty road east of Tehran, in the shadow of the quiescent, snow-capped Damavand volcano, which dominates the capital’s skyline, Fakhrizadeh’s car was ambushed. 

We await fuller details but photos published on Twitter suggest there were no survivors in his car. Another vehicle appears to have been completely destroyed by a bomb.

Israel, it seems, is back to its policy from 2010 to 2012 of the assassination of Iran’s nuclear scientists, suspended under pressure from the Obama administration so that Iran would agree to being a party to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the multination nuclear accord that, on paper, constrained its nuclear activities. To tighten pressure on Tehran, the Trump administration exited the JCPOA in 2018. Since then, Iran has increased its production of enriched uranium and the number of operating centrifuges. An assumed Israeli attack in July on the centrifuge assembly plant at the main Natanz facility is thought to have set back, but not stopped, Iran’s ambitions.

In the past, Israel used specially-trained Iranian opponents of the Islamic regime to do its dirty work in Iran. The professionalism and complexity of this latest incident more likely involved actual Israelis. Within Iran, there will be anger, perhaps some panic; a security clampdown is inevitable. 

It is naïve at best to believe (though some people do) that Iran shelved its nuclear-weapon ambitions in 2003, when a U.S. intelligence analysis concluded that weapon design work had stopped — while work on enrichment (to make a nuclear explosive) and missiles (to deliver a warhead) continued. Back then, Fakhrizadeh was the head of Iran’s Physics Research Center and executive officer of the AMAD Plan, Iran’s nuclear weapons program. The organizational structure for Iran’s project has gone through several name changes since; most recently he was the head of the Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research. 

Iran’s public diplomacy of asserting that its nuclear research was peaceful did not extend to allowing inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency to interview Fakhrizadeh. As a consequence, he was subjected to penalties in United Nations Security Council Resolutions and banned from international travel. His assets, to the extent he had any abroad, were frozen. Perhaps we now will learn more about him. 

In terms of significance, the killing of Fakhrizadeh is on par with the January killing by U.S. forces in Baghdad of Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander who coordinated Tehran’s destabilizing activities in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Tehran has sworn to avenge that attack but has yet to do so. Iran’s habitual preference to wait for an opportunity now has to be balanced against an urge to lash out in revenge. 

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Follow him on Twitter @shendersongulf.

Tags Biden transition Donald Trump Israel-Iran conflict Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Mohsen Fakhrizadeh Nuclear program of Iran

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