The assassination of a top Iranian nuclear scientist, briefly explained

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani retaliation for the murder of Iran’s top nuclear scientist in remarks on Saturday, promising a response “to the martyrdom of our scientist at the appropriate time.”

The scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was kill near Tehran on Friday, authorities said, just weeks after an international monitoring agency confirmed that the country had taken further steps in its nuclear development, further exceeding the limits of nuclear research imposed by a 2015 nuclear deal now abandoned.

According to the Iranian Defense Ministry, Fakhrizadeh was ambushed by gunmen on his way to a town about 65 km from Tehran, and died after being taken to hospital.

No country or group has claimed responsibility for Fakhrizadeh’s death, but in a statement on TwitterIranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called the murder “an act of state terror”. In his televised speech on Saturday, Rouhani accused Israel to be behind the attacks.

Experts say Rouhani’s accusation is probably not false. According to the New York Times, at least one US official, as well as two other intelligence officials, said Israel was responsible for Fakhrizadeh’s death.

Such an attack would appear to be within Israel’s ability. Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that Israeli assassins in Tehran – the capital of Iran – killed a top Al Qaeda leader living there on behalf of the United States. And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Fakhrizadeh described as a figure of interest and importance in a 2018 speech. Israeli officials, however, declined to say whether the country played a role in the murder.

Whoever is responsible for Fakhrizadeh’s death – the latest loss in a long US-led campaign of “maximum pressure” on Iran under President Donald Trump – Iranian military leaders like Iranian General Mohammed Bagheri consider his assassination as a “blow to the Iranian defense establishment”, as Axios reported on Friday.

And it’s also just the latest in a series of setbacks for Iran’s nuclear program, including a summer laden with mysterious explosions at test and research sites, which experts believe Israel is likely responsible.

Among other targets, Natanz, Iran’s main underground nuclear power plant, was rocked by an explosion beginning of July. A missile installation, Khojir, was also the site of a major explosion in June.

As Dalia Dassa Kaye, director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy at RAND Corporation, told Alex Ward of Vox in July, “There is an escalating trend and context” to the explosions this summer ” which would suggest a motive on the Israeli side to target the Iranians.

Israel has long been concerned about the prospect of Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, concerns that may have intensified on Wednesday last week when the International Atomic Energy Agency – a United Nations agency tasked with monitoring Iran’s compliance with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action such as the Iran nuclear deal – reported that Iran had taken another step towards the potential production of nuclear weapons.

The report says Iran is using a type of advanced centrifuge banned by the agreement to enrich uranium at Natanz, the same facility that was exploded in July this year.

In 2018, Trump decided to tear up the nuclear deal and reimpose US sanctions on Iran. Iran subsequently also abandoned parties to the agreement, arguing that because the United States left the agreement, it was no longer valid. In January, the country said it was enriching uranium to a higher level than before the deal was signed.

Fakhrizadeh’s death comes at a delicate time for US-Iranian relations

Despite Iran’s promise to retaliate, it’s unclear what will happen next, as tensions in the region remain high. While Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei promised “the final punishment of the perpetrators and those who ordered it”, it is not known what form this could take.

Following the US assassination of the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad, Iran responded with an airstrike on US military bases last January.

Even before Fakhrizadeh’s death, Iran had indicated as recently as September its intention to retaliate more for the murder of Soleimani. But that doesn’t mean Iran will choose to act now – especially when dealing with the worst coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East – which last week caused more than 37,000 officially confirmed deaths.

And while Iran has also blamed Fakhrizadeh’s death on the United States, according to the Times, there is also the new US presidential administration to consider. President-elect Joe Biden, who was vice president to President Barack Obama when negotiating the Iran nuclear deal, will take office in January 2021 and has said he hopes to do so. re-enter the case as president.

Iran has not ruled out this possibility. At the beginning of November, Zarif, the country’s foreign minister, told CBS News that “we can find a way to re-engage, obviously. But re-engagement does not mean renegotiation. This means that the United States is returning to the negotiating table. “

Whether this re-engagement is still an option is no longer clear, however, and with nearly two months remaining in office, Trump represents something of a wild card when it comes to the US-Iran relationship. Earlier this month, he reportedly asked advisers about options for a strike against Iranian nuclear facilities in Natanz, although officials now believe such an attack is “off the table.” according to the New York Times.

Neighboring Iraq also remains a possible flashpoint. Last week rockets reportedly fired by an Iranian-linked militia “landed at the US Embassy compound in the walled Green Zone of Baghdad.” according to the Washington Post. No embassy staff were injured in the attack and – for now – the United States remains on track to reduce its presence of troops in Iraq in the coming months.

In a statement reported by Al Jazeera on Saturday, a spokesperson for UN Secretary General António Guterres called for caution.

“We have taken note of reports that an Iranian nuclear scientist was assassinated near Tehran today,” UN spokesman Farhan Haq said. “We call for restraint and the need to avoid any action that could lead to an escalation of tensions in the region.”