Mohsen Fakhrizadeh’s Assassination: Iranian Retaliation?

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a leading Nuclear physicist, was murdered on Friday, November 27th, on the way to his in-laws’ house in Absard, Iran. Iran held a large funeral that most senior officials attended, including Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi, nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi and Revolutionary Guards commander Gen Hossein Salami. Iran is adamant that Israel was involved in the assassination. However, Israel’s Intelligence Minister claimed that he did not know who was behind the killing during an interview on Monday, November 30th. On the other hand, an anonymous senior Israeli official claimed that “Iran’s aspirations for nuclear weapons, promoted by Mr. Fakhrizadeh, posed such a menace that the world should thank Israel.” 

Iranian versions of Fakhrizadeh’s murder have shifted significantly over time. Early coverage of the incident featured witnesses describing an empty car exploding and the sudden emergence of at least twelve assassins who quickly descended on Fakhrizadeh’s car. One report even claimed the incident killed three to four terrorists. The Iranian defence ministry first described an altercation involving heavy gunfire between Fakhrizadeh’s security and several unknown armed men. However, the story then transitioned into one of artificial intelligence and a satellite controlled smart system. Ali Fadavi, the deputy commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, claimed that rather than terrorists and open fire, the perpetrators used an advanced remote control weapon. This technology allowed them to “zoom in” and employ face recognition to shoot Fakhrizadeh while leaving his wife, sitting 25cm from him, unharmed. On November 30th, Rear Admiral Shamkhani confirmed the remote attack version, further adding that Iranian intelligence had been made aware of a plot to assassinate Fakhrizadeh. Despite shifting accounts of his death and contradictory statements, one thing remains in common—Israel’s alleged involvement.

Why blame Israel? Fakhrizadeh was the fifth Iranian nuclear scientist murdered in Iran in the last decade. The New York Times describes a “…pattern of mysterious poisonings, car bombings, shootings, thefts and sabotage” targeting scientists and secretive facilitates. Almost all of these are believed to be orchestrated by Israel. The New York Times seems to hold this belief, suggesting that “Israeli officials— without formally acknowledging responsibility— have all but openly gloated over the repeated success of their spies.”

Fakhrizadeh was a target given his purportedly crucial role in Iran’s covert nuclear program from 1989 into the 2000s. However, the Iran government has repeatedly insisted that the project was shut down in 2003 and all nuclear research and activity is non-combative. Conversely, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu made a public statement in 2018 outlining that Israel came across documents that showed that Fakhrizadeh was secretly continuing this work. This revelation was accomplished through a brazen Israeli team in 2018, who, using explosives, entered a vault in Iran and stole 5,000 pages of confidential documents on Iran’s nuclear program. A few weeks later, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu cited the documents’ contents, singling out Fakhrizadeh as a critical developer alongside the loaded comment of “remember that name.” 

Iran has not forgotten this memory as they grapple with the incident. Irani Defense Minister General Amir Hatami seemed to publicly promise to avenge the murder, saying, “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.” Hossein Dehghan, a recently announced candidate in next year’s presidential election and senior commander of the Revolutionary Guards, was more direct in his message. Taking to Twitter, he outlined, “We will come down like thunder on the heads of those responsible for the murder of this martyr and make them regret it.”

Yet, this sort of action would be quite difficult for Iran. If they want to protect any diplomatic space and opportunity, its retaliation ability is limited. The European powers made this point explicit,  warning that any move that could be seen or construed as limiting UN inspections into Iran’s political activity would be ill-received and limit any chance of a diplomatic settlement. Iran’s tension-filled relationship with the United States is also the topic of significant analysis. President Donald Trump abandoned a deal reached in 2015 with the U.K., France, China, Russia, and Germany that provided sanction relief to decrease nuclear activity. 

Since this Trump decision to return to sanctions, the IAEA estimates that Iran has had more than 12 times the permitted amount of enriched uranium. This already tense relationship reached a bitter peak in January when the U.S. assassinated General Qasem Solieimani, the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force commander. However, incoming president Joe Biden has lent some optimism to a more peaceful relationship and a return to the previous Nuclear deal. American President-elect Joe Biden has promised to lift all sanctions and return to action-oriented negotiations. Iran has outlined that it will return to full compliance with the nuclear deal when the US keeps this promise. However, some analysts speculate that this assassination attempts to shut down any prospect of the U.S. rejoining the 2015 agreement. All bets are off on what Iran will do, but all eyes are watching. Given that the United States is offering a chance at negotiation, it would be an excellent opportunity for Iran to choose peace. However, their bold opponents’ violent actions may have prompted some irrational decisions with catastrophic consequences.

Brynne Thomas

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