On November 27th, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the head scientist for Iranian nuclear development, was shot in his car in Tehran. Following the assassination, Iranian authorities released various conflicting reports on how Fakhrizadeh was killed. At first, officials believed that both Fakhrizadeh and one of his bodyguards died in a gunfight between his security forces and up to 12 enemy assailants. After further investigation, however, Iran now believes that the attack was executed using facial recognition and a remote, satellite-controlled gun mounted on a Nissan truck; the truck promptly exploded after the murder, destroying any evidence that could have corroborated this claim. At Fakhrizadeh’s funeral on Sunday, the Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, Ali Shamkhani, reiterated that “there was no-one present at the scene” and that the killing was executed remotely using “special methods.”
While remote arms are increasingly common, this incident would mark the highest-profile use of such weapons. Some believe that Iran’s remote-controlled weapon explanation is simply a tool to cover up Iranian intelligence and security failures which resulted in Fakhrizadeh’s death. According to Reuters, Iranian officials are saying that the “killing exposed security gaps that suggest its security forces may have been infiltrated and that the Islamic Republic was vulnerable to further attacks,” a comment that others believe is just another attempt to justify negligence. In addition to not taking responsibility, Iran has blamed the murder on Israel, as well as the banished Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK) group—the MEK actively opposes the Islamic Republic and has been linked to previous assassinations within Iran. CNN reported that a U.S. official confirmed Israel’s participation last week, but he refused to mention if President Trump was aware of the attack.
Despite these assertions, Israel has yet to comment directly on its involvement. However, an anonymous Israeli nuclear intelligence official, referenced by the New York Times, allegedly stated that “Iran’s aspirations for nuclear weapons, promoted by Mr Fakhrizadeh, posed such a menace that the world should thank Israel.” Immediately following the attack, an English news source in Iran reported that a weapon found on the scene had symbols linking it to the Israeli military. Running with these accusations, General Amir Hatami, Iranian Minister of Defense, stated at Fakhrizadeh’s funeral that “The enemies know, and I as a soldier tell them, that no crime, no terror, and no stupid act will go unanswered by the Iranian people,” according to BBC. Hatami also condemned any country which has not denounced the killing; AP News reports that only Bahrain and the U.A.E. have done so. Furthermore, the Iranian government has vowed to double its funding to Iran’s Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research (SPND)—which Fakhrizadeh headed—and also increase its nuclear development in honour of the “martyr doctor.”
Fakhrizadeh’s death reflects growing tensions in the Middle East surrounding Iranian nuclear development and its impact on international relations. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh led Iranian nuclear projects although Iran continually denies any intended aggression. He was originally linked to a secret effort focused on atomic bomb research known as “Project Amad” in 1989; while the project was allegedly shut down 14 years later by the International Atomic Energy Agency, 2018 Israeli reports hinted that some of this work still continues. Despite his notoriety, Fakhrizadeh’s death was not an isolated incident. He marks the fifth assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist within the past decade, all of which have been blamed on Israel.
In addition to regional conflict, this recent incident holds important implications for the United States and global collaboration. Although Iran signed the JCPOA nuclear arms agreement in 2015 which limits its nuclear development, Iran has continually breached regulations, especially since the United States’ exit in 2018. Joe Biden has promised to rejoin the agreement and lift strict economic sanctions on Iran, hoping to curb further violations. This move is very controversial, however, and many countries such as Israel believe that the original JCPOA does not accurately address pressing concerns in the Middle East. In light of this opposition, analysts are saying that Israel’s potential connection to the attack could be a sign of its increased lack of cooperation, intended to pressure Biden.
The uncertainty within Iran and regional tensions exacerbated by Fakhrizadeh’s assassination raise concerns for peace and nuclear restraint in the Middle East. Iran’s conflicting reports on the manner of death call into question its governmental integrity when providing information to the global community. Friction between Israel and Iran, as well as sub-state groups, continues to grow, heightening ongoing local conflict. Regardless of who implemented the attack, the relative anonymity and efficiency of remote-controlled weapons raise new concerns over international safety which must be addressed. And finally, repeated attacks on Iranian scientists highlight the need to address nuclear development in Iran, and they emphasize that this is an issue which will likely define the early days of Joe Biden’s presidency.
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