In Brief

What’s the Fallout From the Killing of a Top Iranian Nuclear Scientist?

The assassination of Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh will intensify debate in Tehran over whether to reengage in the nuclear deal with the Biden administration.

It is not yet clear how the November 27 killing of senior scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on a road outside of Tehran will affect Iran’s nuclear program. But coming after other successful attacks, which Iran has linked to Israel, the killing has spurred calls in the regime to reform internal security structures, as well as opposing views on whether to avenge Fakhrizadeh’s death.

How important was Fakhrizadeh to Iran’s nuclear program, and what will be the impact of his killing? 

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It is difficult to assess the impact on Iran’s nuclear program. Fakhrizadeh had been involved in the most crucial aspects of the program, such as enriching uranium to a 20 percent concentration of the uranium-235 isotope—far above the level needed for power generation—and developing the heavy-water reactor at Arak, a plant that could eventually produce plutonium for atom bombs. Iran’s nuclear program has been subject to sabotage and assassinations before and has managed to advance. It is likely to move forward, although it is clearly damaged.

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Yet, the attack highlighted flaws in Iran’s security services. After the killing, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei called for “all relevant administrators” to “investigate this crime and firmly prosecute its perpetrators and its commanders.” Iran’s vulnerability to attacks will generate further calls to revamp its security procedures.

Iranian officials have linked Israel to the attack. Could the killing raise tensions and the risk of reprisals in the Middle East?

Iranian soldiers carry a coffin that has nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh's photo on one end and three roses on top
Members of Iranian forces carry the coffin of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Iranian Defense Ministry/WANA/Reuters

President Hassan Rouhani blames Israel and says Iran will not fall into its trap of engaging in rash conduct that could provoke a larger conflict. It is unlikely that there will be an immediate retaliation that could derail potential talks with the incoming administration of U.S. President-Elect Joe Biden. Over the past four years, Israel has attacked Iran’s military forces in Syria and even removed nuclear files from a warehouse in Tehran. But Iran can ill afford escalating into tit-for-tat attacks with Israel at a time when it cannot manage its economy or contain the coronavirus pandemic.

What impact could this incident have on the Biden administration’s efforts to revive talks on the Iran nuclear deal? 

This episode has further polarized opinions in Iran. Hard-liners such as the supreme leader and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officials—who stress that the nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, has ill served Iran—see U.S. involvement in the latest attack and cite this as another indication that Washington is not a reliable negotiating partner. On the other hand, Rouhani and more moderate elements who believe that the pathway to sanctions relief is negotiations continue to emphasize diplomacy. But the assassination of one of Iran’s most important scientists makes diplomacy even more challenging. There are many actors in the Islamic Republic who have little confidence in talks with the United States. Still, Iran is likely to agree to new talks with the future U.S. administration if they focus on returning to the nuclear deal as previously negotiated.

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Officials in the Donald J. Trump administration have denied any foreknowledge of Fakhrizadeh’s killing. The fact that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in the region just prior to the attack could be a coincidence. Despite all the speculation and conspiracy theories, there is no proof yet that this was a coordinated operation between the United States and Israel.

Are Iran’s hard-liners likely to be strengthened or weakened by the attack? 

The paradoxical impact is that both factions in Iran seem to be bolstered. The hard-liners once more insist that the nuclear accord has not stopped the imposition of sanctions, the sabotage of nuclear installations under international monitoring, or the killing of scientists. Conversely, the more moderate elements say such an attack offers proof that Iran’s principal enemy—Israel—is so fearful of a new round of diplomacy that it will go to great lengths to disrupt negotiations.

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The balance of power between these factions is likely to be decided by the progress of talks between Iran and the United States, if they resume, and by the results of Iran’s presidential election in June 2021.

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