Gunmen are killing Iran’s top nuclear scientists, triggering a new crisis

Iran’s chief nuclear scientist, who has long been identified by U.S. and Israeli intelligence as a leading figure in the secret efforts to design the nuclear trenches, was shot dead and killed by Iranian media by the way as he and his bodyguards traveled outside Tehran.

For two decades, scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh has been the driving force behind what U.S. and Israeli officials call Iran’s secret nuclear weapons program. And its work continued after Iran formally disbanded the bomb in 2003, according to U.S. intelligence assessments and Iranian nuclear documents that Israel stole nearly three years ago.

Credit…Office of the Supreme Leader of Iran through the Associated Press

An American official – along with two other intelligence officials – said Israel was behind the attack on the scientist. It was not clear how much the United States could have known in advance of the operation, but the two nations are the closest among the Allies and have a long-standing shared intelligence on Iran, which Israel considers to be the most dangerous.

Iranian officials, who have always claimed that their nuclear ambitions serve peaceful purposes rather than weapons, expressed anger and revenge for the assassination, called it an act of terrorism and an act of war that was quickly blamed on Israeli assassins and the United States.

White House, CIA and Israeli officials did not want to comment. But the assassination of Fakhrizadeh – just ten months after the United States killed a massive spymaster at the head of the Iranian security machinery in a drone attack in Iraq – could greatly complicate President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s plans for reactivation in 2015. A nuclear agreement between Tehran and six other nations has curbed Iran’s nuclear activities.

Mr Biden’s interim team did not have an immediate comment on the assassination.

In 2018, President Trump withdrew the United States from the nuclear deal, dissolving the foreign policy achievements of his predecessor, Barack Obama, and isolating the United States from the Western allies who tried to keep the deal untouched. Since then, Iran has again begun to increase its nuclear capabilities, arguing that it will not be bound by the nuclear deal because the United States has rejected its commitments.

He was characterized by a precisely planned operation to assassinate Mr Fakhrizadeh. According to Iranian state media, gunmen waited along the road and attacked as their car drove through the rural town of Absard, an area known as a bucolic escape with majestic mountains about 40 miles east of Tehran.

Images published by state and social media about the aftermath of the attack show the scientist’s vehicle, a black SUV with bullet-shattered windshields and blown-out side windows. Bloodstains, shards of glass and metal scattered along the way.

Protests erupted outside government buildings in Tehran to seek revenge, as they did after the January 3 attack that killed Qassim Suleimani, the Iranian general in charge of the Quds elite of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

“Terrorists have murdered an outstanding Iranian scientist today,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote Twitter. “This cowardice – with strong indications of Israel’s role – shows the desperate warming of the perpetrators.”

Mr Zarif, who negotiated an Iranian nuclear deal and remains one of Iran’s best-known figures, said in the post that the international community “must end its shameful double standard and condemn this act of state terror”.

Brig. General Mohammad Bagheri, chief of staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, said in a statement that “we will not rest until we find and avenge those responsible for the murder of the martyr Fakhrizadeh.”

On Friday night, Iran sent a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemning the so-called “terrorist attack” and warning that the country “reserves the right to take all necessary measures to protect its people and safeguard its interests”.

It is difficult to predict the exact fall of the murder. Weakened Iran, which has only lost its two most famous military and nuclear figures in the past year, may yearn for new talks with the Biden administration.

The twin murders could still poison the well. Iranian hardliners may gain the argument that they will not bow to external pressure and must redouble their efforts to resist the West in memory of Mr Fakhrizadeh, who has been declared martyred.

Mr. Obama, former CIA director John Brennan, called the murder “Crime and very reckless” in a tweet. “It could lead to deadly retaliation and a new round of regional conflicts,” he wrote, urging Iran to “wait for the return of a responsible American leadership” and resist the temptations of retaliation.

Former Pentagon Middle East political official Michael P. Mulroy said Fakhrizadeh’s death was a “step back from Iran’s nuclear program.” He noted that the scholar “was also a senior officer in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and this reinforces Iran’s desire for a violent response.”

It was unclear whether Foreign Minister Mike Pompeo, one of the administration’s loudest Iranian hawks, had been warned in advance of Israel’s plans when he visited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week.

However, some U.S. officials have argued that Fakhrizadeh’s death, which took place in a row of Iran’s top nuclear scientists dating back a decade, reinforces the cold message from other leading scientists in the country: a well-guarded head cannot be protected, no one else.

Nor is it clear how much the assassination is holding back the Iranian program. Fakhrizadeh had the background and supervision to understand the physics and political challenges facing the Iranian nuclear program.

But Iran has recovered from the assassinations of lower-level scientists, as well as the 2007-2010 cyber-attacks at the Natanz nuclear fuel site, a joint Israeli-American operation codenamed the “Olympic Games”. This operation delayed Iran by about a year.

Mr Fakhrizadeh’s assassination comes barely two weeks after intelligence officials confirmed that the second-highest leader of Al Qaeda was shot dead by Israeli assassins on a motorcycle on the streets of Tehran on August 7, at the behest of the United States.

Qaeda figure Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah passed by Abu Muhammad al-Masri’s renowned guerre and was accused of being one of the masterminds of the 1998 deadly attacks on two East African American embassies. He was killed along with his daughter, Miriam, the widow of Hamza bin Laden, the son of Osama bin Laden.

But the Qaeda official was a foreigner; Fakhrizadeh was a national hero, a figure of resistance to the West and his insistence that Iran cannot have its own nuclear technology.

Iran has never agreed to a demand from the UN nuclear observer, the International Atomic Energy Agency, for UN inspectors to question Mr Fakhrizadeh, saying he is an academician who has given lectures at Imam Hussein University in Tehran.

Mr. Fakhrizadeh was an academic, but a series of classified reports, notably a lengthy evaluation by the CIA for the George W. Bush administration in 2007, said the academic role was a cover story. In 2008, his name was added to the list of Iranian officials whose property was ordered by the United States.

In the same year, the IAEA Inspector General revealed his activities in an unclassified briefing. It later became clear that he was leading a project called the 110th and 111th by the Iranians – trying to solve the most difficult problems that bomb designers face when creating a missile that is small enough to fit on top of a missile, and to survive the difficulties of re-entry. the atmosphere.

He stayed out of sight for years. But an Israeli operation in early 2018 that stole a warehouse full of Iranian documents about “Project Amad,” which the Iranians called a nuclear weapons effort 20 years ago, contained documents about Mr. Fakhrizadeh and was written by at least one hand, the Israelis claimed.

Shortly afterwards, Mr. Netanyahu highlighted Mr. Fakhrizadeh in a television presentation when he described a secret Israeli operation to seize the archives. Iran lied about the purpose of its nuclear research, he accused, and appointed Fakhrizadeh as head of the Amad program.

According to Iran, Mr. Netanyahu’s presentation was fiction.

Israeli officials, later backed by U.S. intelligence officials who reviewed the archive, said the scientist kept some elements of the program alive, even if it was apparently abandoned. This was now secretly continued, Mr Netanyahu said, by an organization in the Iranian Ministry of Defense known as the SPND. He added: “You shouldn’t be surprised to hear that SPND is led by the same person who led the Amad project, Dr. Fakhrizadeh. “

The assassination comes at a time of sharply heightened tensions between Iran and the Trump administration. Trump was taken away from Iran’s strike just two weeks ago after his helpers warned it could escalate into a wider conflict during his last week in office.

At a meeting of the Oval Office on November 12, Mr. Trump asked senior advisers if he had the opportunity to take action against Iran’s main nuclear power plant in Natanz in the coming weeks. Days later, Mr. Pompeo visited Israel, and it was his last trip there in office.

Such a strike on the eve of a new administration could poison relations with Tehran to such an extent that it would be impossible to negotiate the restoration of a nuclear agreement or the tightening of its terms.

Since Mr. Trump fired Mark T. Esper, Secretary of Defense and other senior Pentagon assistants, earlier this month, the Department of Defense and other national security officials have expressed private concern that the President may launch open or covert operations against Iran or others. at the end of his opponents mission. Others say Mr Netanyahu, who has been on the brink of attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities at various times, may try to act while Mr Trump is still in office.

While Trump’s top advisers, including Mr. Pompeo and General Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Chiefs of Staff, have argued against a military strike against Iran, top U.S. officials and commanders continue to warn of Iran’s malicious activities.

In Iran, some officials and commentators acknowledged that the loss of Fakhrizadeh had created a significant gap in the country’s pursuit of nuclear science, but vowed that this would not be stopped. Others have voiced concerns about the yawning security hole that they believe allowed Israeli operatives to infiltrate Iran.

“Israel camped here in a bad way. Recent events this year make this clear, ”said former Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi. Twitter. “Iran’s security strategy must be aimed at finding Mossad spies and informants.”