The roadside assassination, last week, of the Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was an elaborate intelligence operation that played out like a blockbuster thriller, according to unusually candid accounts by the Iranian media. Fakhrizadeh, who was around sixty and had a graying beard, and also a bit of a paunch, has often been compared to J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of America’s atomic bomb, and A. Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program. Fakhrizadeh had enough secrets in his head that he was followed around by a team of bodyguards; he also held the title of brigadier general.
On Friday, the Muslim holy day, he was reportedly travelling with his wife, in a black Nissan sedan, from Tehran to visit his in-laws in Absard, a town famed for its apple and cherry orchards, about forty-five miles away. Highways around the capital are notoriously clogged, but travel restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 crisis have meant far less traffic. As Fakhrizadeh’s car neared a roundabout, a blue pickup truck parked near an electricity transmitter opened fire on the car and then exploded, cutting off local power, including to a nearby clinic; roadside cameras were disabled. One account claimed that a dozen gunmen—one group jumped out of a parked S.U.V. and another arrived on motorcycles, while snipers were hidden nearby—opened fire. A separate account, by Fars, the nation’s semi-official news agency, reported that all the fire came from the pickup truck, which was remote-controlled. Fars claimed that there were no human assailants at the scene; the whole operation took three minutes, the agency said. Both accounts said that Fakhrizadeh, hit multiple times, fell out of his car and bled out on the ground. The Iranian media released photos of the bullet-riddled car and the blood stream. By the time a rescue helicopter got Fakhrizadeh to Tehran, he was dead.
The attack provoked fury in Iran, breathless headlines around the world, and a lot of speculation about retaliation, which could, in turn, spark a mini-war. No one claimed responsibility. But the hit, which required detailed intelligence about a secretive official’s weekend plans, his timing, and his route, mirrored four previous assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists. Carried out between 2010 and 2012, the previous operations were widely associated with Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. “Terrorists murdered an eminent Iranian scientist today,” the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, tweeted, on Friday. “This cowardice—with serious indications of Israeli role—shows desperate warmongering of perpetrators.” Iranian leaders vowed revenge. “Iran’s enemies should know that the people of Iran and officials are braver than to leave this criminal act unanswered,” President Hassan Rouhani said, in a nationally televised cabinet meeting. “In due time, they will answer for this crime.” Rouhani added, though, that the government would not rush into a hasty decision.
The glaring irony of the sensational operation is that it will probably have a negligible impact on Iran’s nuclear program. “No individual is crucial in a nuclear program like this anymore,” Bruce Riedel, a former senior U.S. official who served in the National Security Council, the C.I.A., and the Pentagon, and who is now at the Brookings Institution, told me. “The Iranians mastered that technology twenty years ago. This guy was important, no question, but he was not crucial to it. Nobody is crucial to it anymore. That’s why describing this as a devastating blow is nonsense.”
Fakhrizadeh was pivotal in developing the infrastructure for a weapons program and assembling the team to run it until 2003, Ariane Tabatabai, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund and the author of the new book “No Conquest, No Defeat: Iran’s National Security Strategy,” told me. But in 2003, in a deal struck with the three major European powers, Tehran agreed to suspend its program. By then, Iran had most of the know-how anyway. Tehran has since shifted its focus to enriching uranium, the fuel needed for both atomic weapons and peaceful nuclear-energy reactors. The C.I.A. has repeatedly concluded that Iran has not returned to weaponization. Fakhrizadeh later moved to the Defense Ministry’s Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research.
The crucial factor today is that Iran has the knowledge needed to fashion a nuclear device, but it lacks the material—highly enriched uranium or plutonium—necessary to build nuclear bombs, Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, in Washington, D.C., told me. “Whatever role Mr. Fakhrizadeh has played in the Iranian nuclear program, his assassination will not have material effect on Iran’s capability to amass more enriched uranium,” Kimball said. The enrichment program falls under the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, which is headed by Ali Akbar Salehi, an M.I.T. graduate. Salehi was a key player during the two years of intense international diplomacy that led to the Iran nuclear deal, in 2015. He and his organization were sanctioned by the Trump Administration, in January. “But since Iran now has the know-how, no single Iranian scientist is essential to assembling that technology into a bomb,” Tabatabai said. Instead, that decision would be political, and would be made by the Supreme National Security Council, then submitted to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for his final approval. This is the same decision-making process that led to agreeing to talks with the United States in 2013 and to the eventual nuclear deal.
The domestic fallout from Fakhrizadeh’s assassination could be more impactful than the operation itself, partly because of the humiliation. The regime faces pressure to respond with bigger and bolder military action than it has in the past. “This is a truly serious blow to Iran, primarily in the eyes of the Iranian public,” a leader of a Middle Eastern country, who asked not to be named, told me. “This has very profound implications to its internal dynamics. Therefore, they may choose to retaliate to overcome the sense of embarrassment and vulnerability.” Kayhan, a hard-line paper close to the Supreme Leader, urged the government to attack Haifa, the Israeli port city, as a “deterrence, because the United States and the Israeli regime and its agents are by no means ready to take part in a war and a military confrontation.”
The Fakhrizadeh assassination follows the U.S. drone strike that killed Major General Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the élite expeditionary wing of the Revolutionary Guards, after he landed in Baghdad, in January. Tehran has long charged that Washington and Jerusalem are in cahoots on Iran strategy. The White House did not comment on Fakhrizadeh’s assassination, although President Trump retweeted a Times story about it and two tweets—in English and in Hebrew—by an Israeli journalist who wrote that Fakhrizadeh’s death was “a major psychological and professional blow for Iran.” After the Suleimani assassination, Iran fired missiles at two Iraqi bases that also housed U.S. troops. No Americans were killed, but more than a hundred American personnel suffered various degrees of traumatic brain injury; more than seventy of the troops returned to duty within weeks.
Since it abandoned the nuclear deal and resumed punitive economic sanctions against Iran, in 2018, the Trump Administration has orchestrated an escalating “maximum pressure” campaign to convince the Islamic Republic to accept sweeping new provisions that cover its missile program, support for extremist movements, intervention in the Middle East, and human-rights abuses. The Administration has sanctioned dozens of Iranian institutions, banks, foundations, and government ministries and ministers, and has threatened to sanction nations and third-party companies that do business with Iran. So far, Trump’s strategy has failed. Iran has demanded assurances that sanctions will be lifted in any new diplomatic arrangement.
Since the Fakhrizadeh assassination, the question increasingly being asked in Washington and in the fragile Middle East is about motive: Was the attack, now widely assumed to have been orchestrated by Israel, intended to kill one expert, or was it more broadly designed to undermine an initiative by the incoming Biden Administration to reëngage diplomatically with Iran—or both? The President-elect has repeatedly said that he wants to return to the nuclear deal. “I think the three amigos—Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia—share an overwhelming determination to prevent Joe Biden from reviving U.S.-Iran diplomacy and the nuclear deal,” Riedel, the former U.S. official, said.
Earlier this month, Pompeo travelled to Israel and Saudi Arabia and reportedly facilitated a meeting with Netanyahu and M.B.S., which many experts believe focussed more on joint efforts against Iran than on normalization of relations. Riedel said that the Trump Administration and Saudi officials are eager to thwart the type of diplomacy that was practiced during the Obama years. “When you think back to 2016, when John Kerry called up his Iranian counterpart every week and spoke to him on the phone—it was extraordinary,” Riedel said. “The Saudis and Israelis are desperate to prevent that from happening again. How do they set up a situation where Biden is boxed in and can’t do anything about it?”