Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the senior Iranian nuclear scientist who was killed Friday outside Tehran, was so central to the Islamic Republic’s secret nuclear weapons program that it will be hard to replace him with somebody of equal stature, the former head of Israel’s military intelligence said.
“The is no doubt that he was the core source of authority, knowledge and organization of this program,” said Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amos Yadlin.
Iran’s nuclear program has two tracks: an overt one producing fissile material Tehran claims is for civilian use (though it can be used for nuclear weapons), and a secret one dedicated to weaponization, explained Yadlin, in a briefing for journalists Sunday organized by the Media Central group.
“There is no damage to the enrichment and fissile material part of the program [with Fakhrizadeh’s death]. The damage to the covert weaponization program is huge, but cannot be measured since nobody knows exactly the scope and the depth and what the Iranians are doing covertly.”
Fakhrizadeh was killed Friday in an elaborate operation that Iran blames on Israel, though no one has claimed responsibility. Anonymous US officials told The New York Times that Israel was behind the attack, but officials in Jerusalem have remained mum, with senior ministers saying they have no idea who killed the scientist.
Asked about the practical value of assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists — a practice Israel has been accused of, especially between 2010 and 2012 — Yadlin said that there are different schools of thought within the Israeli defense establishment.
“On one extreme there are those who say that when you deal with a system and you cut [off] its heads it’s always very useful. And there are those who say that for any leader there is a replacement and that the graveyards are full of people who were irreplaceable,” he said.
In fact, he elaborated, one could argue that killing Iranian scientists could cause more damage than benefit because it creates anger and lust for revenge, and may motivate the Iranians to work even harder to prove to the world that the assassinations failed to achieve their intended goal of halting the regime’s nuclear program.
But Yadlin, who in 1981 was one of the pilots who bombed Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor at Osiraq and today serves as executive director of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, also said there are some people who are so important that eliminating them is worth the effort, notwithstanding any negative repercussions.
He listed Fakhrizadeh, who was also a general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), together with former Hezbollah number two Imad Mughniyeh (killed in 2008) and IRGC Al-Quds force head Qassem Soleimani (killed in January 2020) as senior leaders who were invaluable to their respective organizations.
“They are people you can [nominally] replace, but there’s really no replacement for their capabilities, knowledge, leadership and the ways they knew how to lead a strategic effort,” he said.
Over the last three decades, Iran has embarked on two strategic efforts, Yadlin went on: achieving hegemony in the Middle East by establishing a presence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, and getting as close to nuclear weapons capability as possible without actually crossing the threshold that would trigger international opposition.
“These two efforts were led by Qassem Soleimani and Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, and [the Iranians] no doubt suffer from their disappearance from the arena.”