top of page

The Day After: The Assassination of Top Iranian Nuclear Scientist

By now, the world has learned about the assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, former head of the Research Center of new technology in the elite Revolutionary Guards, and was a leading figure in Iran's nuclear program for many years.

The assassination comes on the heels of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s historic and secret trip to Saudi Arabia to meet with both Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and U.S. Secretary of State, Pompeo.

The timing of the assassination also raised questions about the United States’ involvement. It is no secret that following President Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the 2015 Iran Nuclear deal, both Israel and Saudi Arabia have been pushing the U.S. to exert more pressure on Iran in order to lure the latter into an all-out confrontation. What is factual is that Trump’s four-year-long Iranian vendetta is approaching a climax – and the danger is that he still has the power and the means to inflict lasting damage over the next six weeks.

Recently, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz stated that President Trump apparently gave his blessing to the assassination of the well-known father of Iran’s nuclear project. Recent revelations in the U.S. suggest that only a few weeks ago, Trump considered options to strike Iran’s nuclear facility in Natanz.

The question many are asking is whether the US intelligence community has contributed to the planning of this targeted assassination. As of now, no one knows. What is factual is that the elimination of targeted individuals in their vehicles is the hallmark of the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad. This tactic has been used with many Iranian nuclear scientists between 2010 and 2012.

My concern is that Saudi Arabia and/or Israel want to drag the U.S. into a war against Iran as Trump’s presidency is ending. Hence, U.S. support for Saudi Arabia, an increasingly unstable ally, should be reevaluated immediately. My analysis suggests that the Desert Kingdom realizes it is stuck in Yemen, failed miserably to change the outcome in Syria because of Russia’s intervention, and is incapable of stopping Iran from expanding its influence in the region. Furthermore, there is domestic discontent inside Saudi Arabia, a campaign of unjustified detention and torture of “prisoners of conscience”, and a bleak economic outlook. Talk about a ticking time bomb!

Washington needs to analyze and objectively consider the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East at present. Clearly, that landscape is shifting and not favoring US national security interests. Aligning our future with a perplexing and uncertain ally simply does not make strategic sense.

The question is what will Iran do moving forward? There are two scenarios: One, Iran could wait to retaliate after President Trump leaves office. The second is to do nothing thinking that the Biden administration most likely wants to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The latter scenario is unlikely given Iran's parliament approved a bill requiring the National Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to raise uranium enrichment at the Fordow nuclear power plant to 20%. Furthermore, Iranian lawmakers discussed the possibility of halting compliance with the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

At the time of this writing, Iran’s leaders are deciding whether to resist the urge to retaliate – or lash out and invite a larger conflict at a moment when Iran is dealing with both harsh U.S. sanctions, and the Covid-19 Pandemic. Both have brought Iran’s economy to its knees.

Equally important, if Iran does not retaliate, all the fiery statements by its Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and top ranking officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) amount to empty rhetoric.

One thing is sure: The fact that the assassination of Dr. Fakhrizadeh took place inside Iranian territory raises pressing questions about Iran's weak internal security services.

What we need to understand is that while Dr. Fakhrizadeh’s death is a blow to Iran's nuclear ambitions, these ambitions do not depend on one scientist. Interestingly, the assassination also comes just days after Iran exchanged the captives of three citizens who were part of a 2012-failed plot to assassinate Israeli diplomats in Bangkok, Thailand. That plot was in retaliation for the series of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists at the time.

Will the assassination of Dr. Fakhrizadeh pave the way for Iran to accelerate its nuclear program? The answer is possibly! What the West needs to understand is that a nuclear Iran in the Middle East, a region of always-dangerous flux and constantly shifting attitudes and energies on the global stage, will introduce new shifts in geopolitics and make international relations among major powers more delicate. This result will affect not only the already fragile relations among world major powers, mainly China, Russia, and the United States, but also among key regional players in the greater Middle East. A nuclear Iran introduces fundamental changes to a region where ambiguity, chaos, and violence are the orders of the day.

In such a complex, often-volatile region, relations between the U.S. and the region require careful attention to policy details—certainly more than routine diplomatic exchanges in the new geopolitical landscape.

Is the U.S. anxiously considering use of military force against Iran on behalf of a Middle East ally? I say we should not do so!

bottom of page