Top Iranian Nuclear Scientist Assassinated Near Tehran, Heightening Tensions

On the 27th of November, one of Iran’s top nuclear scientists was assassinated in eastern Tehran. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a high-ranking nuclear physicist, was often named by Western intelligence as the leader of Iran’s military nuclear program until its disbanding in the early 2000s. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the killing. Fakhrizadeh’s assassination is the second killing of a high-profile Iranian this year and has infuriated Iranian leadership.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Iranian officials accused Israel of being responsible. In a statement to Iranian reporters, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said, “Once again, the evil hands of global arrogance were stained with the blood of the mercenary usurper Zionist regime.” Rouhani’s statement was backed up by Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. On the 28th of November, Zarif published a tweet in which he implied Israel was involved in the attack, and demanded international sanctions be placed on the nation to punish it. Israeli officials have rejected these accusations.

The relationship between Iran and Israel has been strained for decades, and this latest assassination will strengthen anti-Israeli sentiment amidst Iran’s political class. Iranian officials have long-held the view that Israeli secret services are operating in the nation, and have blamed them for the deaths of numerous nuclear scientists. The killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, with no group immediately taking responsibility, will continue to heighten tensions in the region. Carl Bildt, co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations, argued that the attack could be related to American President-elect Joe Biden’s pledge to return to the nuclear deal. The heightening of tension, and Iranian hostility, as a result, could make it significantly harder for a Biden-Harris administration to resume diplomatic discussions regarding Iran’s nuclear programme.

It is unlikely that Fakhrizadeh’s death will cause any major setbacks to the Iranian nuclear programme. Mohammad Marandi, a professor at the University of Tehran, told Al Jazeera that it was too late for hostile nations to do anything about Iran’s nuclear programme. Marandi noted that Fakhrizadeh was only one member of the first generation of nuclear experts; today, the Iranian programme has an array of young scientists, who are building upon the work of these previous experts. However, the fallout from this assassination could see a more aggressive and belligerent Iran, with more determined efforts to produce a nuclear weapon to use against hostile nations. The United Nations has recognized this possibility, with UN Secretary-General urging restraint to prevent an escalation of tensions in the region.

The extrajudicial killing of any individual, regardless of national affiliation, is a violation of international laws. Should Iranian accusations be accurate, then that would mean Israel has consistently violated international norms in order to further its own agenda. That being said, given the hostile relationship between the two nations, it is also understandable that Israel would be hesitant to allow Iran to possess a nuclear weapon. The assassination of scientists is not justified by this, but can be understood as part of a national defense strategy. However, the proper way forward is not through unsanctioned killings, but instead robust diplomatic dialogue. Tensions must be reduced in the region.

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