In the shadow of Damavand, Iran’s highest mountain peak, unidentified assassins attacked and killed top Iranian nuclear physicist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. A bomb hidden in an old truck exploded near Fakhrizadeh’s car as he travelled east in the town of Absard, 70 km east of Tehran. Several assassins then raked his car with machine guns. Iranian reports indicate he died at the hospital. Fakhrizadeh was an officer in the Revolutionary Guards and head of the Iranian Defense Ministry’s research division. Western intelligence agencies identify Fakhrizadeh as the (now former) head of the country’s secret nuclear weapons program.
Fakhrizadeh’s assassination comes nearly 11 months after a U.S. drone strike killed Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force and one of Iran’s top military leaders. The man called Iran’s Oppenheimer is the 6th Iranian nuclear scientist killed since 2010. In Tehran in August of this year, two Israeli operatives on a motorbike shot and killed Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, Al-Qaeda’s second-in-command who also used the nom de guerre Abu Muhammad al-Masri.
Pity the person considered Iran’s number two nuclear physicist, who just had his last night of peaceful sleep.
Iran has implicated Israel in the newest assassination, and Iranian leaders have vowed to strike back at those responsible. Of course, Israel isn’t the only party dreading an Iranian nuclear bomb, and relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf kingdoms have been at a nadir in recent years.
The timing of the assassination – weeks before Joe Biden apparently takes up residence in the White House – suggests that whoever did the deed perhaps saw their window of opportunity for action closing. Biden has already announced his intention to re-enter the nuclear accord President Obama “negotiated” with Iran, and to undo Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against the Iranian regime.
One think-tanker even claimed that Biden himself was as much a target of the attack as the Iranian nuclear program.
But as former CIA career officer Norman Roule told PBS, an operation like this would take months to plan and prepare, so it could not be simply a response to the presidential election. Still, no one doubts the Trump Administration will look on the action differently than the Biden Administration would. Biden’s former Obama Administration colleagues John Brennan (CIA director) and Ben Rhodes (National Security Council) have already denounced the killing.
With its enemies killing its friends in the middle of its capital, the Iranian regime will have trouble resisting the urge for retribution. Inaction will appear weak to regime critics and supporters alike. Yet any sizable reaction by Iran could make it difficult for Biden to re-enter the nuclear accord, and might even bring the two powers into open confrontation. Watch for Iran to wait to attack until after Biden’s signature is affixed onto the nuclear accord – but probably before the ink has dried.