The assassination of the Iranian scientist will not stop Iran’s nuclear program, experts say

WASHINGTON – The assassination of a high-ranking Iranian nuclear scientist has shocked Iran’s leadership, but it will not derail the country’s nuclear program, which has progressed steadily despite President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure”, experts say.

When Joe Biden takes the oath of office on January 20, he will have to contend with the reality that Iran has 12 times as much enriched uranium as in 2018, and that the estimated “burst” time to build the bomb is 12 months, according to UN inspectors. decreased from three to four months.

The assassination of nuclear scientist and senior official Mohsen Fakhrizadeh last week exposed Iran’s security vulnerabilities, but the country’s nuclear work continues, said Kelsey Davenport, director of the non-proliferation policy of the Armaments Control Alliance think tank.

The protesters are referring to images of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s chief nuclear scientist, when he was assassinated on 28 November 2020 in Tehran, Iran.Majid Asgaripour / WANA via Reuters

Although the assassination was a symbolic and psychological blow, “it doesn’t fundamentally change the fact that Iran has nuclear weapons,” he said. “If Iran chooses to pursue nuclear weapons, it has the technical means to do so.”

According to Iranian state media, Fakhrizadeh was killed in an attack on his car on Friday, about 40 miles east of Tehran, in Damavand County. The U.S. and Western governments believe they have overseen a hidden nuclear weapons program that was shut down in 2003, according to U.S. intelligence agencies. The non-military nuclear program continued after 2003, and the United States and others feared it would cover a possible weapons project. .

The United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency has suspected that Fakhrizadeh has made a covert effort to place a warhead on a ballistic missile and to test large explosives suitable for nuclear weapons. The IAEA said in a 2011 report that some work on weapons continued with Fakhrizadeh being the lead organizer.

Iran denies it ever had a nuclear weapons program and accused Israel of organizing last week’s assassination. Israel did not want to comment on the case.

“Iran has always maintained that our nuclear program serves peaceful purposes,” said Alireza Miryousefi, a spokesman for the UN mission in Iran. He cited the fatwa of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei Ayatollah, which forbids the development of weapons of mass destruction because it is contrary to Islam.

Despite Fakhrizadeh’s institutional knowledge and strong ties within the regime, Iran’s nuclear work, which has been going on for decades, is not dependent on a single scientist, Davenport said.

“Removing a person is unlikely to be a fatal blow to Iran’s ability to pursue nuclear weapons, if it so chooses,” he said. – In that sense, I don’t consider it a game modifier.

Fakhrizadeh is not the first senior nuclear scientist to be killed in Iran. Several other Iranian nuclear scientists have lost their lives during Obama’s rule, and nuclear facilities have been subjected to apparent sabotage over the past decade. But Iran’s nuclear work has continued unchanged and its know-how remains intact, experts said.

In 2011, an explosion killed members of the team overseeing Iran’s long-range missile program, but the project continued soon after, said Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert and professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

“Iran replaced the team, built a new facility near Shahrud, and began testing large-diameter solid-propelled missiles,” – Lewis wrote in tweets.

Iran can continue its nuclear weapons program if Ayatollah Khamenei chooses to do so, Lewis wrote. “The tomb gardens are full of indispensable people. The only difference is that Khamenei now gets a much greater incentive to do so,” he added.

Former U.S. officials and European diplomats fear the assassination could provoke retaliation against Iran and undermine President-elect Joe Biden’s plans to revive diplomacy with Tehran. The assassination is said to have been an attempt to undermine the next president.

Biden has promised to return to the United States for the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the JCPOA, which imposed severe restrictions on Iran’s nuclear work in exchange for easing economic sanctions. President Trump withdrew the United States from the multinational agreement in 2018, and since then, Iran has increasingly neglected the provisions of the agreement, exceeding the limits of uranium enrichment and centrifuges.

Iran faces a dilemma following the assassination of Fakhrizadeh, the suspected sabotage of the Natanz centrifuge assembly site and the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani. If you choose not to respond to keep the gates of diplomacy open, the country will look weak and will invite even more covert attacks. But if you take revenge on Israeli or American targets, you could lose your best chance of lifting the sanctions that left your economy torn apart.

Iran’s retaliation could “provoke a chain reaction,” says Robert Malley, a former Obama White House senior official who helped negotiate the Iranian agreement. “Israel may choose to respond in kind, and any such move could further complicate the United States’ return to a nuclear deal, potentially denying Iran the necessary economic assistance,” Malley, president of the International Crisis Group’s think tank, recently wrote in Foreign Policy.

In the coming weeks and months, Iran will need to consider how to keep its remaining nuclear officials safe, how to deter future attacks, and whether retaliation will improve or undermine the prospects for a diplomatic agreement with the incoming Biden administration, the U.S. said. officials.

However, the assassinations of other Iranian nuclear scientists 10 years ago did not deter Iran from pursuing diplomacy with the United States and other governments, said David Albright, founder and president of the Nonprofit Institute for Science and International Security.

According to Albright, Fakhrizadeh’s death deprives Iran of an important figure who skillfully handled and organized sensitive nuclear work.

If Iran decides to rush to build a bomb, it would be in the right position to build an underground explosive device, Albright said. “I don’t think they would have a problem with that, and it wouldn’t take that long,” he said.

“I think the impact would be more noticeable if a nuclear explosive had to be built that would work on top of a ballistic missile,” Albright said. This would require a complex effort to coordinate the work of bomb manufacturers and missile experts while ensuring a reliable return vehicle, he said.

“In that sense, I think this (assassination) is a major blow to the ability to rebuild and build nuclear weapons, especially on the basis of an accident,” he added.

A former senior U.S. intelligence official said “building a nuclear weapons program doesn’t just involve physics,” as it involves building a huge, hidden personnel, building, and equipment business.

“Fakhrizadeh had this experience and was able to work with technical and defense management,” the official said.

Albright said the assassination, along with past sabotage, sends a signal to Iran that it cannot assume that any nuclear work can be kept secret in the future. “They can’t even protect the supreme guy,” he said. – They have to worry a lot.

Miryousefi, from the UN mission in Iran, said Iran has interrupted a number of actions and remains vigilant against threats from abroad, but the country’s nuclear work continues.

“While state-ordered terrorists have brutally murdered a great scientist and a national hero, Iran’s peaceful nuclear program is scheduled to continue,” NBC News said in an email.