Iran is unlikely to retaliate for the assassination of top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh before US President-elect Joe Biden takes office, in order not to jeopardize a potential change in American policy on sanctions relief, the US envoy to Iran and Venezuela said Thursday.
Fakhrizadeh, the scientist previously said by Israel and the US to head Iran’s rogue nuclear weapons program, was killed in a military-style ambush Friday on the outskirts of Tehran. The attack reportedly saw a truck bomb explode and gunmen open fire on Fakhrizadeh.
Iran has blamed Israel and numerous officials have vowed to avenge the scientist.
The United States Special Representative for Iran and Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, told Reuters that the beleaguered Islamic Republic was in desperate need of a change in US policy after years of crippling sanctions under the Trump administration, including new sanctions imposed late last month.
Because of this, Abrams asserted, Tehran was unlikely to do anything to provoke the ire of the incoming Biden administration.
“If they want sanctions relief, they know that they’re going to need to enter some kind of negotiation after January 20, and it’s got to be in their minds that they don’t want to… undertake any activities between now and January 20 that make sanctions relief harder to get,” he said.
He added that the US and Iran would likely renegotiate the 2015 Obama-era nuclear deal meant to curb Iranian aspirations for nuclear weapons in exchange for sanctions relief. The Trump administration abandoned the deal in 2018, opting for a more hawkish position.
Iran has said it will not consider renegotiating the accord.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Saturday called for “punishing” those behind the assassination of Fakhrizadeh, adding that his work must be carried on.
He called for “following up on this crime and certainly punishing the perpetrators and those responsible, and… continuing the scientific and technical efforts of this martyr in all of the fields he was working in,” according to a statement on the supreme leader’s official website.
At Fakhrizadeh’s Monday funeral, Iranian Defense Minister Gen. Amir Hatami declared certain retaliation.
“The enemy knows full well that he cannot commit a crime without getting a response from the Iranian people. The martyr’s blood will be remembered forever and the enemy made a mistake with this assassination,” said Hatami, after kissing Fakhrizadeh’s casket and putting his forehead against it.
“The assassination of the scientist will not stop the progress of Iran’s nuclear program but will only accelerate it. The response will come with certainty,” he added.
In response to the threats, the Israeli National Security Council issued a travel advisory Thursday, warning that Iran may try to attack Israelis overseas and urging greater vigilance, citing recent threats toward Israel by Iranian officials.
“In light of the threats that have been made recently by Iranian elements and given the past involvement of Iranian elements in terrorist attacks in various countries, there is concern that Iran will try to act in this manner against Israeli targets,” the advisory said.
On Monday, the director-general of the Foreign Ministry Alon Ushpiz sent a letter to all Israeli diplomatic missions urging them to be on alert following the assassination of Fakhrizadeh, and Tehran’s subsequent finger-pointing at Israel and vow to avenge his death.
Citing the “events over the weekend,” Ushpiz called on missions to maintain “the highest possible level of preparedness and vigilance for any unusual activity in the area of the mission, at the homes of families and at Jewish and Israeli community centers,” according to Kan news.
Fakhrizadeh was named by Netanyahu in 2018 as the director of Iran’s nuclear weapons project. When Netanyahu revealed then that Israel had removed from a warehouse in Tehran a vast archive of Iran’s own material detailing its nuclear weapons program, he said: “Remember that name, Fakhrizadeh.”
Israel has long been suspected of carrying out a series of targeted killings of Iranian nuclear scientists nearly a decade ago, in a bid to curtail Iran’s rogue nuclear weapons program. It has made no official comment on the matter. Israeli TV coverage noted that Friday’s attack was far more complex than any of the previous incidents.
Agencies contributed to this report.