Nuke chief’s killing dealt Iran a major blow, but the price may be high

Brazen daytime raid may hobble Biden’s plans to rejoin the nuclear deal and draw retaliation from Tehran as it smarts from losing the architect of its atomic weapons program

Judah Ari Gross

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

In this picture released by the Iranian Defense Ministry and taken on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020, caretakers from the Imam Reza holy shrine, carry the flag draped coffin of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, an Iranian scientist linked to the country's disbanded military nuclear program, who was killed on Friday, during a funeral ceremony in the northeastern city of Mashhad, Iran.  (Iranian Defense Ministry via AP)
In this picture released by the Iranian Defense Ministry and taken on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020, caretakers from the Imam Reza holy shrine, carry the flag draped coffin of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, an Iranian scientist linked to the country's disbanded military nuclear program, who was killed on Friday, during a funeral ceremony in the northeastern city of Mashhad, Iran. (Iranian Defense Ministry via AP)

The killing of Iran’s military nuclear architect outside of Tehran on Friday struck a major blow to the Islamic Republic, both in practical and symbolic terms, for which it will almost undoubtedly seek revenge — though perhaps not immediately. It will also not likely be the last such blow to Iran.

The killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh — a brigadier general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, as well as a top military scientist and academic — closes out a year of high-profile losses for Tehran: the killing of IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in an American airstrike in Iraq in January; a cyberattack that brought down a major Iranian port; the destruction of a nuclear facility in Natanz, along with several smaller sites, in a series of explosions throughout the summer; and, somewhat indirectly, the killing of Abu Muhammad al-Masri, a top al-Qaeda leader shot dead in Tehran in August, shedding light on Iran’s close relationship with the terrorist group. The Islamic Republic was also particularly hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and remains under crushing American financial sanctions that have hobbled its economy.

Tehran has attributed all of these blows — save the pandemic — to Israel or the United States directly. Jerusalem has been officially mum on the matter, as is its wont.

The daytime raid that targeted Fakhrizadeh, who had been singled out by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2018 as the main force behind Tehran’s military nuclear program, was carefully coordinated, requiring exceedingly strong intelligence in order to track him, coupled with advanced operational capabilities to carry out the assault itself — though credible specific details of the attack remain hazy two days later.

This photo released by the semi-official Fars News Agency shows the scene where Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed in Absard, a small city just east of the capital, Tehran, Iran, November 27, 2020 (Fars News Agency via AP)

The attack occurred while Fakhrizadeh, his wife and their security detail were traveling down a highway toward Absard, a resort town east of Tehran, at roughly 2:30 p.m. Iranian time.

According to some Iranian outlets, a vehicle traveling near their car exploded, forcing the military scientist to stop. Gunmen then emerged from an SUV and killed Fakhrizadeh’s bodyguards and shot him, fatally wounding him, then fled the scene.

One Iranian outlet, the semi-official Fars news agency, reported by contrast that the entire attack had been carried out by a remote-controlled machine gun. According to Fars, Fakhrizadeh exited his car after shots were fired at it. When he did so, the remote-controlled machine gun opened fire at him and his bodyguards, then the car carrying the weapon exploded, presumably to keep evidence from falling into the hands of Iranian authorities.

This photo released by the semi-official Fars News Agency shows the scene where Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed in Absard, a small city just east of the capital, Tehran, Iran, Nov. 27, 2020. Parts of image are blurred for potentially disturbing imagery. (Fars News Agency via AP)

According to every account, however, Fakhrizadeh was airlifted in critical condition to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead. His wife survived the raid.

This type of highly public killing is deeply embarrassing for Iran, demonstrating both internationally and domestically that it cannot provide adequate security to a high-profile official like the head of its constantly-under-fire nuclear weapons program, which has already been targeted in the past with assassinations by foreign governments.

Iran quickly accused Israel of responsibility for the assault. Israel has not publicly confirmed its role in the operation, though at least one senior Israeli official indicated to the New York Times that Jerusalem was behind the hit, saying the world should “thank Israel” for killing Fakhrizadeh, whom he described as a menace.

Publicly, Israeli officials have been gleefully ambiguous, with Minister of Settlement Affairs Tzachi Hanegbi telling Channel 12 on Saturday he had “no idea” who killed Fakhrizadeh. Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told the Kan broadcaster on Sunday that “whoever did it” contributed to the security of “not only Israel, but the whole region and the world.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to nod at Israel’s involvement in the hit in a video he released on Friday, in which he recited achievements of his government over the previous week and added that it was only a partial list as there were some other things he “can’t tell you.” Netanyahu knew the statement could also be taken as a reference to a reported trip he took to Saudi Arabia, which has not been officially confirmed.

The Iranian Oppenheimer

Fakhrizadeh has been accused of leading Iran’s nuclear weapons program for decades, first as the head of Tehran’s AMAD program, which was nominally dissolved in 2003 but was later replaced in all but name by the Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research, known by the abbreviation SPND.

Iran denies having plans to develop atomic weapons, maintaining that its nuclear program is for civilian purposes, but a trove of Iranian documents stolen from Tehran by the Mossad, which were revealed by Netanyahu in a 2018 press conference, showed plans by Iran to attach a nuclear warhead to a ballistic missile among other elements indicating a weapons program.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands in front of a picture of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, whom he named as the head of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, April 30, 2018 (YouTube screenshot)

It was during that press conference that Netanyahu identified Fakhrizadeh by name as the architect of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

“If Iran ever chose to weaponize (enrichment), Fakhrizadeh would be known as the father of the Iranian bomb,” a Western diplomat told the Reuters news agency four years prior.

The ‘core source of knowledge’

The killing of Fakhrizadeh — often referred to as Iran’s J. Robert Oppenheimer, who led America’s development of the first atomic bombs — will also have a direct impact on Tehran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons.

“The is no doubt that he was the core source of authority, knowledge and organization of this program,” Amos Yadlin, a former Military Intelligence chief and current head of the influential Institute for National Security Studies think tank, told reporters Sunday in a briefing organized by the Media Central group.

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh (Agencies)

“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.

Though Fakhrizadeh’s death will probably not affect Iran’s ability to produce fissile material — he had no real role in that — Tehran will likely find it more difficult to turn that into a deliverable nuclear bomb. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Fakhrizadeh was believed to be behind the effort to miniaturize an atomic weapon and make it rugged enough to be used in an intercontinental ballistic missile — two key steps needed to create a functional atomic weapon.

“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,” Yadlin said.

Fakhrizadeh has reportedly been in Israel’s crosshairs in the past, at least since 2009. According to Ronen Bergman, a well-connected journalist on Israeli intelligence and security, plans were submitted to kill the Iranian military scientist at some point during Ehud Olmert’s tenure as prime minister from 2006 to 2009, but the plot was scuttled at the last minute.

“Apparently, there were those who came to Olmert… and said, listen, there is a danger that the operation will fail; there is a danger that the forces on the ground will be discovered,” Bergman told Channel 10 news in 2018, after Netanyahu identified Fakhrizadeh by name.

Since then, Fakhrizadeh has remained on Israel’s radar, being closely monitored and tracked by Israeli intelligence.

So why now?

The recent uptick in alleged Israeli actions against Iran and its nuclear program can largely be traced to the window of opportunity of an outgoing US administration that supports offensive military action against Tehran. Indeed, US President Donald Trump, who abandoned the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 in favor of a so-called “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions, tweeted about the raid repeatedly over the weekend, even retweeting an Israeli military correspondent’s description of it.

US President-elect Joe Biden, on the other hand, plans to rejoin the 2015 Iran nuclear deal — formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — and to advance further negotiations with Tehran. Proponents of this strategy see these alleged Israeli actions as unhelpful toward that goal, making talks less likely to succeed as Iran could harden its positions and be less amenable to Western diplomacy.

“If the primary purpose of the killing of Mr. Fakhrizadeh was to make it harder to restart the Iran nuclear agreement, then this assassination does not make America, Israel or the world safer,” US Senator Chris Murphy, a leading voice of the Democratic party’s foreign policy, wrote in a tweet on Friday.

US Vice President Joseph Biden, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, talk before a dinner at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, March 9, 2010. (AP Photo/Baz Ratner, Pool)

The left-leaning J Street organization, an advocate of the JCPOA, described the raid as an “attempt to sabotage diplomacy.”

However, those who are more hawkish on Iran and generally warier of rapidly returning to the JCPOA see these types of operations as leverage — meaning the incoming administration could use the threat of further Israeli actions to negotiate a stronger deal.

This was an argument presented by Mark Dubowitz, head of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank and lobbying firm, which generally takes a hardline approach on Iran.

“Still almost two months before Joe Biden takes office. Plenty of time for US and Israel to inflict severe damage on the regime in Iran — and build leverage for the Biden administration,” Dubowitz said Saturday.

The price is terror

In addition to accusing Israel of being responsible for the killing of Fakhrizadeh, several Iranian officials threatened the Jewish state with retaliation. A conservative Iranian newspaper, Kayhan, called for an attack on Israel’s northern port city of Haifa, which has routinely been threatened by the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon.

A close military adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and a candidate for Iran’s 2021 presidential election, Brig. Gen. Hossein Dehqan, vowed to avenge the killing.

“We will come down hard on those who killed martyr Mohsen Fakhrizadeh like thunder and make them regret their deed,” he said, according to Iranian media.

But while Israel expects some type of retaliation for the operation, it is unlikely to come directly from Tehran, which hopes to hold negotiations with Biden’s incoming administration. Such an attack on a close US ally like Israel would make talks far more difficult for the Islamic Republic, a point of leverage that Jerusalem appears acutely aware of and willing to exploit.

However, Tehran need not directly implicate itself by openly attacking the Jewish state. Over the past 40 years the Islamic Republic has built up networks of proxies around the world to do its bidding while giving it deniability — plausible or otherwise.

Such was the case in the aftermath of previous alleged Israeli assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists — at least four of them — between 2010 and 2012.

Indian officials examine a car belonging to the Israeli embassy, after Monday's attack wounded one person. (photo credit: AP Photo/Mustafa Quraishi)
Indian officials examine a car belonging to the Israeli embassy, after an attack on February 13, 2012. (AP Photo/Mustafa Quraishi)

Throughout 2012, a series of attacks targeted Israeli officials and civilians across the globe in attacks tied to Tehran, apparently in response to the Mossad spy agency’s clandestine activities in Iran. On February 13 of that year, bombings took place in New Delhi, India and Tbilisi, Georgia — all apparently targeting Israeli officials or locations. The New Delhi bombing was directed against Israel’s defense attaché to India, injuring his wife, their driver and two bystanders, while the Georgian attack was thwarted after an Israeli embassy driver found the bomb under his car before it could be detonated. A day later, several bombs exploded in Bangkok, Thailand, injuring five people, which were suspected of being botched efforts to attack Israeli targets.

Later that year, a Hezbollah operative was arrested in Cyprus, where he admitted he had been conducting surveillance on Israeli tourists, apparently in preparation for attacks against them.

On July 18, 2012, a suicide bomber attacked a bus of Israeli tourists in the Bulgarian city of Burgas, killing five of them and their driver and injuring dozens more. Hezbollah is widely believed to have carried out the attack, likely at Tehran’s behest.

An Israeli emergency rescue team examines the remains of a bus bombed in Bulgaria in July, 2012, allegedly by Hezbollah (Dano Monkotovic/Flash90/JTA)

The bombing of the AMIA Jewish community offices (Argentine Israelite Mutual Association) in 1994, which killed 85 people and injured hundreds more, has also been traced back to Iran’s nuclear program. According to Argentine prosecutors Alberto Nisman and Marcelo Martínez Burgos, the bombing was ordered by Iran in response to a decision by then-Argentinian president Carlos Menem to call off an agreement to supply Tehran with nuclear material and knowhow.

In light of the current threat of retaliation, Israeli embassies and Jewish sites around the world have gone on high alert. At the same time, the Israel Defense Forces has not changed its official level of alertness or significantly changed its deployments, an apparent indication that it does not anticipate an Iranian retaliation in the form of an immediate military strike.

Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.

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