Key issues over the assassination of Iran’s chief nuclear scientist

Here’s what you need to know.

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, presumably the brainchild of Iran’s controversial nuclear program, was sitting in a car east of Tehran when he was shot dead Friday afternoon. While there are conflicting reports on how the attack went, most accounts agree that it was a sophisticated attack with shooting and explosions. But at least one account offered even more dramatic claims.

The semi-official Fars news agency said on Sunday that Fakhrizadeh and his wife were traveling in a bulletproof car, next to three security cars, when they heard bullets hit a vehicle and got out of their car to find out what had happened.

Iran's chief nuclear scientist was killed in an obvious assassination, state media reported

A remote-controlled machine gun then opened fire on a Nissan that stopped about 150 meters (164 meters) from Fakhrizadeh’s car, Fars said. The scientist was hit at least three times and Nissan exploded after the attack.

According to weapons experts, the claim is technically possible. But experts agree that those behind the assassination are unlikely to choose this method because of the high risk of failure. Iranian news agencies also offered a controversial version of events.

It is also conceivable that the Iranian authorities will try to exaggerate the sophistication of the attack in order to curb the blatant weakness of its security apparatus revealed by the assassination of one of the top officials illuminated by daylight. Because of the murder, Iran feels exposed and vulnerable.

Who was it and why was it important?

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of Fakhrizadeh. He is seen by Western intelligence agencies as the father of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, whose alleged existence has been at the heart of Tehran’s stand against the international community for nearly two decades. Iran has repeatedly stressed that its nuclear program has been used exclusively for peaceful purposes, but Western states have accused Tehran of seeking to develop an atomic bomb. If this ever happened, intelligence agencies said Fakhrizadeh would have been the brainchild.

In 2015, the Obama administration reached a major agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for easing sanctions, but it was short-lived. In 2018, Trump withdrew from the pact and enforced the most crippling sanctions on Tehran ever. A year later, Iran continued to enrich uranium and took other steps to reactivate its nuclear program. This has alarmed Western capitals, but experts believe Iran has been far from developing nuclear weapons for years.

While Fakhrizadeh played a key role in Iran’s nuclear program, he was an old hand, so it is unlikely that his expertise would have died with him.

Who did it?

Iran has blamed Israel for the attack and says the operation bears the marks of Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, Mossad. While Iran did not provide evidence of Israeli involvement, Israel did not deny or assume the death of Fakhrizadeh.

In 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Fakhrizadeh was the leader of the Amad project, which he and others classify as a secret nuclear weapons experiment.

“Remember that name, Fakhrizadeh,” the prime minister told reporters at the time.

Shortly after the assassination, U.S. President Donald Trump re-engaged Israeli journalist Yossi Melman, who wrote that Fakhrizadeh “was at the head of Iran’s secret military program and had been seeking Mossad for many years.”

What has Iran said and what does it mean for the nuclear agreement?

The Iranians have retaliated against the retaliation, but it is not clear how this will happen. After Trump ordered the assassination of Iranian chief General Qasem Soleimani in January, Tehran raised the specter of retaliation for the cataclysm. The Iranians responded quickly but restrainedly.

In January, Iran fired more shots with ballistic missiles at U.S. stations in nearby Iraq, but warned soldiers in advance, allowing them to cover in bunkers. But in addition, a military error led to the shooting down of a Ukrainian commercial plane taking off from Tehran International Airport that night, killing 176 people on board.

Iran's top leader vows revenge after top nuclear scientist killed

Iran’s restraint after the assassination of Soleimani was seen as part of President Hassan Rouhani’s policy of “strategic patience”. For years, Iranians have been billing the Democrat returning to the White House – and expecting US President-elect Joe Biden to keep his promise to restore the nuclear deal.

What happens with the nuclear deal depends on Iran’s response to the assassination. If Iran retaliates now and starts a conflict, it will be difficult for all parties to return to the negotiating table next year.

But Iran’s patience is thin. His economy has been subjected to unwavering sanctions, and his top leadership has been hit by repeated blows in recent years. Calls for retaliation are becoming louder among lawmakers, and Tehran’s deterrent has been greatly dampened by restraint expectations.

Whether you retaliate against Tehran or not, you will have to lose a lot and will step carefully.