The killing of the Iranian nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was the latest event to escalate tensions in the Middle East between the US and Israel, and Iran. The head of the Iranian nuclear program was killed in his car in an ambush supposedly done by satellite-controlled machine guns near the Iranian capital, Tehran. The killing has naturally attracted widespread outcry from the international community. The European Union condemned it as a “criminal act” against human rights, and they and many other countries call for restraint.
While no actor has claimed responsibility for the attack, Iran, along with several other nations, point fingers at Israel. Israel has pushed back against these accusations; an Israeli cabinet official has stated that he had no idea who was behind the attack. There has been no official statement from the United States, although the New York Times reported that a US official confirmed that the attack was perpetrated by Israelis.
There is reason to believe that Israel did orchestrate the strike on the scientist. Fakhrizadeh has long been a top target of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. In 2018, Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said, “Remember that name, Fakhrizadeh” after naming him as the head of Iran’s AMAD program that Israel says is seeking to develop nuclear weapons. Mossad has also been responsible for the deaths of Iranian nuclear scientists in 2010 and in 2012, including some of Fakhrizadeh’s program leadership. Israel is not the only one to peg Fakhrizadeh as key to Iran’s nuclear weapons program. The International Atomic Energy Association described him as the AMAD program’s executive officer in 2011, and named him in their 2015 report detailing questions they had about Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear bomb.
Despite international pushback against the attack, Israel may have seen this as the best opportunity to cripple the Iranian weapons program. After the US withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, Iran had enriched uranium up to 4.5% purity, well above the levels prescribed in the agreement. While it is far from the 90% enrichment used for weapons, experts warn that Iran has enough uranium for two atomic bombs. Israel may fear that Iran’s capabilities will only grow during a Biden administration that has made it clear that it intends to enter a new nuclear deal with Iran.
Publicly, Iran has called for retaliation against Israel and the United States. This would likely happen through Iranian proxies such as Hezbollah, since Iran has little military capability to attack distant targets from its own borders. There is the possibility of an attack in Iraq as was done after the killing of the Iranian general, Soleimani. However, some Iranians have called for strikes against Israel directly as well. The Iranian paper, Kayhan published a piece calling for an attack on the Israeli port city, Haifa with the intent of causing “heavy human casualties.” While this is just one small newspaper, the editor of the paper was appointed by Ayatollah Khamenei and has been an advisor to the supreme leader. However, while popular opinion supports retaliatory strikes, the official position seems hesitant to react aggressively. Ayatollah Khamenei focused on two priorities for Iran; to first investigate and prosecute this crime, and secondly, to continue Fakhrizadeh’s technological work.
Whatever Iran’s reaction is, it will create challenges for US policy. Iran may back away from a military strike because it wants to avoid losing an opportunity for negotiations with a Biden administration for a nuclear agreement. However, if Iran did react aggressively, it would require additional US military involvement in the Middle East at a time when the US is attempting to draw down troops in the region. While the attack may have set Iran’s nuclear program back a little, it will not destroy the infrastructure already built or the effort Fakhrizadeh has done to train other scientists to carry out his work. The United States will need to have to find another, preferably diplomatic way, to discourage Iranian work on nuclear weapons and promote stability in the Middle East.