The targeted killing of a top Iranian scientist has increased pressures on Iran's regime at a time of speculation about a renewal of dialogue with the United States.
LONDON — Less than three months ago, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Hossein Salami vowed retribution for "enemies' should "any Iranian lose so much as a hair on their head." Now, as we know, nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, whom the Islamic Republic called "the father of Iran's atomic bomb," was killed in an operation near Tehran. The killing comes less than a year after U.S. drones killed the Revolutionary guards commander Qasem Soleimani near Baghdad airport, and the Islamic Republic's intelligence agencies have yet to trace the source of this latest attack or identify how Fakhrizadeh could be struck in broad daylight, while traveling with a security escort in the district of Absard, not far from Tehran.
The explosion that killed the scientist left no civilian casualties. Officials of the Islamic Republic are blaming the Israelis, though quite a few people in Iran are also attributing the act to the regime itself. Speculations may proliferate but many in Iran cannot believe elements outside the regime's intelligence apparatus to carry out such a "neat" and precise operation.
The attack has heightened political pressures on those intelligence agencies, which will likely get to work to clear up a shameful security lapse.
Fars news agency, which is close to the Revolutionary Guards, reported on November 29 that Fakhrizadeh had been shot at from a distance, by elements sitting in a delivery van. It affirmed there were no "human elements' at the site of the incident. That may be an attempt by state media to cover up for the security apparatus, and shift the blame onto other institutions.
But hours after the attack, the state broadcasting body interviewed a truck driver as an eyewitness. He said there had been shooting on the road, and someone had even shot at his vehicle. Mehr news agency suggested another scenario in a report entitled "Shadow of cyber-espionage over Fakhrizadeh's assassination." It stated he may have been tracked with mobile phone signals, and urged strengthening its communications infrastructures.
Protesters burn American and Israeli flags during a protest gathering against the killing of Fakhrizadeh — Photo: Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto/ZUMA
Regime supporters want to present Fakhrizadeh not just as an important security or military figure, but an esteemed researcher and scientist, working in the field of "philosophy." Academic Ebrahim Osuli-Haris told the Fars agency that Fakhrizadeh was "a researcher in the field of the philosophy of physics and science." Other official media in Iran have claimed the Israeli spy agency Mossad killed him as he had created an anti-Covid vaccine, and taken it as far as the testing stage.
The Islamic Republic's Information ministry has promised it would soon reveal the results of "clues' it had found about the culprits. Defense Minister Amir Hatami said the state would "certainly pursue the criminals, and the Supreme Leader's orders will be carried out." Moved by the incident, members of parliament are reported to have variously urged an increase in the number centrifuges, increased uranium reserves, abandoning the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and even firing missiles onto Haifa or Tel Aviv.
Parliament has since tabled a "double urgency" motion to suspend the Additional Protocol to the Treaty (allowing closer nuclear checks), with legislators wanting to block visits to nuclear installations by inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The motion was to be voted on on December 1.
The killing has upset the hopes that the regime might initiate talks with Washington.
Legislator Alireza Salimi says "we are not optimistic about the Agency's process of inspections. Its inspectors are suspect and we see them as the source of many of these bitter events and the killings of scientists." Information Minister Mahmud Alavi had earlier vowed that ministry operatives would avenge Fakhrizadeh's killing, which he was to discuss with members of the parliamentary National Security committee within days.
The killing has upset the hopes entertained by some that the regime might initiate talks with Washington with the incoming U.S. President Joseph Biden, and widened divisions inside the regime on the issue. That may be why some senior Democrats were angered by the killing. Yet one should bear in mind that the killings of several other Iranian nuclear scientists influenced Tehran's willingness to sign the 2015 nuclear pact, as it saw itself under unavoidable security and economic pressures.
Radical elements in Tehran are loudly blaming that pact now for Fakhrizadeh's killing, and opposing negotiations with renewed vigor. That will make it more difficult for the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to decide on whether or not to engage in talks. For talks have now become intertwined both with a matter of national pride, and the impact of continued economic sanctions. Ditching the Additional Protocol and falling out with the IAEA can only provoke its governing board against the Iranian regime.