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Iran Vows Revenge for Killing of Its Top Nuclear Scientist
A ceremony held on Nov. 29, 2020 at the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad, Iran after the killing of Iran's top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. (Iranian Defense Ministry/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Iran Vows Revenge for Killing of Its Top Nuclear Scientist

But analysts say Tehran does not want to trigger a war that might prevent sanctions relief from the Biden Administration

Iran is reeling from the assassination of its top nuclear scientist after he was ambushed while driving with bodyguards and family members outside Tehran on Friday.

Physicist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh’s killing is yet another setback for the Islamic Republic’s intelligence apparatus.

Prof. Mohammad Marandi, head of the American Studies Department at Tehran University, told The Media Line all fingers point to the usual suspects.

“It’s quite obvious that the Israeli regime had a green light from Washington,” Marandi said. “We know it from the New York Times reports and [President Donald] Trump’s tweets, and the Israelis don’t have the capability to carry out such an operation without American logistical support [from] US embassies across the region, especially in countries neighboring Iran and US military bases that have surrounded Iran.”

The White House, Pentagon, State Department and CIA all have refrained from officially commenting on the assassination. Marandi was referring to Trump’s retweets on the incident, including at least one that said the scientist had been “wanted for many years by Mossad,” the Israeli intelligence agency.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani was swift to accuse arch-foe Israel of acting as a US “mercenary” in Friday’s killing.

Rouhani pledged the country would exact revenge in “due time” and not be rushed into a “trap.”

It’s quite obvious that the Israeli regime had a green light from Washington

Marandi acknowledges that the killing could complicate any efforts by President-elect Joe Biden to revive the nuclear accord with Tehran that was forged in 2015, during President Barack Obama’s administration.

“We’ll have to see if Biden wants to return to the nuclear deal. It’ll be quite easy for him. There’s no need for negotiations; he has to reverse the presidential decrees of Trump, and move toward implementation,” he said.

Even if that happens, “it is not going to prevent Iran from carrying out measures against those who are behind the assassination and the act of terror that we saw,” Marandi continued.

Trump withdrew the US from the nuclear pact in 2018, saying America and its allies could not stop Iran from building nuclear weapons “under the decaying and rotten structure of the current agreement.” He opted instead for a “maximum pressure” campaign, imposing “crippling sanctions” on Iran.

Fakhrizadeh, who was between ages 59 and 62 at the time of his death, according to various sources, kept a low public profile and was rarely seen in public. He was a brigadier general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and a professor at the guard’s Imam Hussein University. The UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) believed he was overseeing Iran’s nuclear program.

Fakhrizadeh was accused by Israel of being the mastermind behind the Islamic Republic’s illicit nuclear weapons program.

Iranian officials vehemently deny that the country has a nuclear arms project. Marandi says this program exists only in the imagination of Western officials.

“Iran has never tried to develop a nuclear weapon. This is nonsense promoted by the Western media where they mimic Western government officials. There’s been no evidence whatsoever to show that Iran has ever taken a position to move toward a nuclear weapon,” the Tehran-based professor said.

Biden will be sworn in as US president on Jan. 20, 2021. His transition team has not commented on the killing, but Yaakov Lappin, a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, near Tel Aviv, told The Media Line it could complicate the new administration’s efforts to resume dialogue with the Islamic Republic.

“The complexities that the Biden Administration will face in dealing with Iran will depend to a large extent on the timing and nature of retaliation that Tehran might take,” he said.

Despite public threats by Iranian officials to take revenge for the assassination, Tehran may not be interested in any military escalation, he added.

“It’s worth noting that the Iranian regime is still very much interested in sanctions relief and in improving its dire economic situation, which ultimately threatens the regime’s stability, and this requires negotiations with Washington. A regional conflict would clearly undermine those interests,” Lappin said.

The complexities that the Biden Administration will face in dealing with Iran will depend to a large extent on the timing and nature of retaliation that Tehran might take

Jason Brodsky, policy director for United Against Nuclear Iran, told The Media Line the killing may have an effect on Iranian domestic politics.

“As it relates to efforts to revive the nuclear deal, this may weaken Rouhani, who already has diminished standing in the last months of his presidency. But it doesn’t necessarily shut the door to future negotiations completely,” he explained.

Rouhani cannot run for a third term in next year’s presidential election, due to be held in about seven months, as he is currently serving the second of the maximum two consecutive mandates.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei pledged to retaliate for the death of the nuclear scientist, saying on Twitter that Iranian officials must take up the work of “pursuing this crime and punishing its perpetrators and those who commanded it.”

That threat and others like it led the Israeli security establishment to go on high alert.

Lappin said the Islamic Republic has “a wide range of retaliation options it can choose from,” but added it “seems fair to assume that, should it retaliate, it will do so in a manner that is not intended to lead to general war and that will not torpedo chances of sanctions relief further down the road.”

Marandi has no doubt that an Iranian response will be forthcoming.

“I would imagine there will be strikes on assets of the regimes that were involved in this act of terror and this act of war. There also may be political implications as well; Iran may choose to decrease its cooperation with the IAEA,” he said.

Brodsky said that the murder is part of the continuing intelligence, security and assassination war between Iran and Israel.

“I think Mohsen Fakhrizadeh’s death is a psychological blow for Iran’s regime. It comes after repeated incidents of security lapses: Soleimani’s death, the mysterious explosions at Natanz and elsewhere, the assassination of Masri in Tehran,” he said.

Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, was killed by a targeted US drone strike in Bagdad last January. A fire and explosion hit a centrifuge production plant at Iran’s main uranium enrichment facility in Natanz in July. Al-Qaida’s No. 2 leader, Abu Muhammad al-Masri (whose real name was Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah), was killed in Tehran in August.

Lappin said the repeated assassinations inside Iran pose a major challenge to the image that Tehran is trying to portray regionally.

“The fact that squads are operating in Iran, striking repeatedly and effectively, forms an enormous security, counterintelligence and public conception problem for the Iranian regime. It is also a direct challenge to Iran’s image as a regional power that projects power far beyond its borders but cannot secure its own critical assets on home soil,” he said.

National security and intelligence analyst John Brennan, who led the CIA from 2013 to 2017, when Barack Obama was president and Biden was vice president, tweeted on Friday that the scientist’s assassination was a “criminal act & highly reckless,” saying it “risks lethal retaliation & a new round of regional conflict.”

Israeli cabinet member Tzachi Hanegbi, a confidant of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, said he did not know who carried out the killing. “I have no clue who did it. It’s not that my lips are sealed because I’m being responsible, I simply really have no clue,” he told Israel Channel 12’s Meet the Press news program.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres and Germany, a party to the nuclear pact with Iran along with the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and the European Union, called for restraint from all sides.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told Sky News on Sunday in the wake of the killing of the scientist: “We are concerned about the situation in Iran and the wider region. We do want to see de-escalation of tensions.”

Turkey said the slaying was an “act of terrorism” that “upsets peace in the region.”

“We regret the death of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh following an armed attack. We condemn this heinous murder and offer our condolences to the Iranian government and the dead man’s relatives,” the foreign ministry in Ankara said in a statement. “Turkey is against all initiatives aimed at disrupting peace in the region and against all forms of terrorism, no matter who the perpetrator or target is.”

Fakhrizadeh personally held a great deal of institutional knowledge for Iran’s nuclear program. So his death is a loss for the regime in that sense. But he leaves behind a well-entrenched bureaucracy and network

Brodsky said the killing dealt a major blow to Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, but not its end.

“Fakhrizadeh personally held a great deal of institutional knowledge for Iran’s nuclear program. So his death is a loss for the regime in that sense. But he leaves behind a well-entrenched bureaucracy and network,” he said

Marandi concedes the slaying is a major setback, but he insists that the Islamic Republic will overcome it.

“It is a blow to Iran, but this is not the Iran of 20 years ago. Iran has many young scientists working in the field of nuclear energy,” he said.

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