Iran has vowed to retaliate for the assassination last week of one of its top nuclear scientists, but intelligence sources are questioning the notion that the incident will dramatically undermine presumptive President-elect Joseph R. Biden’s plans for a major detente with Tehran next year.
It remains unclear who killed Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh near Tehran on Friday, just weeks after the revelation that a similarly mysterious attack killed top al Qaeda operative Abu Muhammad al-Masri in the city and less than a year after a U.S. strike eliminated top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani while on a visit to Baghdad.
The Fakhrizadeh strike has triggered hand-wringing among Democrats because of fears that the mission was secretly authorized by President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to derail Mr. Biden’s hope of bringing back the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal that Mr. Trump repudiated in 2018.
But another camp argues that a shaken and vulnerable Iran may be more willing now to deal with a Biden administration and that recent events have left the Democratic former vice president with a cleaner path to a new accord.
“What this has done is take the three of the most dangerous, Iran-based actors off the stage,” one former senior U.S. intelligence official told The Washington Times. “Their absence removes the potential of problems each of these individuals would have caused, and that may make the world a little easier for Joe Biden to deal with.”
Despite the killing, Iran appears set to meet with the other signatories of the Iran nuclear deal — China, Russia, France, Germany, Britain and the European Union — for a previously scheduled assessment of the deal Dec. 16 in Vienna.
Not all agree. John O. Brennan, head of the CIA under President Obama and a fierce critic of President Trump, tweeted Friday that the Fakhrizadeh strike “was a criminal act & highly reckless.” Mr. Brennan urged Tehran to avoid lashing out until Mr. Biden has a chance to patch up relations after Inauguration Day next month.
“Iranian leaders would be wise to wait for the return of responsible American leadership on the global stage and to resist the urge to respond against perceived culprits,” Mr. Brennan tweeted.
Mr. Trump has not commented explicitly on the Fakhrizadeh killing, but he did retweet a posting about it from Israeli journalist Yossi Melman, an expert on the Israeli Mossad intelligence service, who called the killing a “major psychological and professional blow for Iran.”
Iranian leaders have roundly accused Israel, long suspected of targeting top Iranian nuclear scientists as a way to undermine Tehran’s nuclear programs, of carrying out the strike. The Associated Press reported that Israeli Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Ushpiz has instructed all Israeli diplomatic delegations around the globe to maintain “the highest level of readiness and awareness of any irregular activity” in light of possible revenge strikes.
U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies have declined to comment, although both have asserted that captured Iranian archives show that Mr. Fakhrizadeh was a founder of the Islamic republic’s military nuclear program in the early 2000s.
He is accused of having led a key aspect of the program known as “AMAD,” which Israeli and U.S. officials have described as a military operation that explored the feasibility of building a nuclear weapon — even though Tehran has long sworn it was interested only in civilian uses of nuclear power.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has said the AMAD program essentially ended in 2003. U.S. intelligence agencies in the George W. Bush administration concurred in a 2007 report.
However, media reports in recent days have suggested that Mr. Netanyahu continued to harbor an obsession with Mr. Fakhrizadeh — convinced that the Iranian scientist remained engaged in dangerous clandestine operations throughout the 2000s and even after the signing of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
The multinational deal, which eased sanctions on Iran in exchange for limits to its nuclear program, has been on life support since Mr. Trump’s 2018 withdrawal and the subsequent reimposition of harsh U.S. sanctions. Mr. Netanyahu gave a presentation that year in which he unveiled what he described as material stolen by Israeli operatives from an Iranian nuclear archive.
“A key part of the plan was to form new organizations to continue the work,” Mr. Netanyahu said at the time, claiming that “this is how Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, head of Project AMAD, put it.”
“Remember that name,” the Israeli prime minister said. “Fakhrizadeh.”
Such comments have only fed speculation that Israeli operatives carried out Friday’s assassination — speculation that Iranian officials continued to promote Monday.
At Mr. Fakhrizadeh’s funeral in Tehran, Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, accused Israel of using “electronic devices” to remotely kill the scientist. Mr. Shamkhani and Iranian Defense Minister Gen. Amir Hatami both vowed to continue the scientist’s work “with more speed and more power.”
Authorities initially said a truck exploded and then gunmen opened fire on the scientist, killing him and a bodyguard. But Iranian state media reports on Monday claimed that a weapon recovered from the scene of the attack bore “the logo and specifications of the Israeli military industry.” The reports have also claimed that the weapons used were “controlled by satellite.”
Questions continue to swirl over whether the truck that exploded during the attack detonated afterward to try to destroy a satellite-controlled weapon hidden inside, as well as the extent to which an operative on the ground would have been required to set up the weapon.
Mr. Shamkhani blamed the Iranian exile group Mujahedeen-e-Khalq for “having a role in this,” without elaborating. The MEK, as the exile group is known, has been suspected of assisting Israeli operations in Iran in the past. Shahin Gobadi, an MEK spokesman, dismissed Mr. Shamkhani’s remarks in an interview with The Associated Press, calling them “rage, rancor and lies” sparked by the group’s earlier exposes over Iran’s nuclear program.
Monday’s service for Mr. Fakhrizadeh took place at an outdoor portion of Iran’s Defense Ministry in Tehran, the AP reported, with Revolutionary Guard chief Gen. Hossein Salami, Intelligence Minister Mamoud Alavi, and Ali Akbar Sahei, head of Iran’s civilian nuclear programs, among those in attendance.
Sorting through speculation
Norman Roule, who focused on the Middle East during his 34-year career with the CIA, downplayed the veracity of allegations swirling in the Iranian and the Western media space over the Fakhrizadeh killing.
Mr. Roule, who declined to speculate on who may have carried out the killing, said in an interview Monday that “it will take some time for the Iranians to investigate how this attack took place and to develop a judgment as to who may have been behind it.”
Daniel Hoffman, another former CIA official who writes an occasional column for The Washington Times, said there is little question that the incident “bears all the hallmarks of what the Israelis are suspected of having done in the past.”
Mr. Hoffman’s comment was a reference to a wave of attacks in or near Tehran that left at least five high-level Iranian nuclear scientists dead from 2007 to 2012.
NBC News reported in 2012 that the bombings were carried out by operatives with the MEK, who were trained by Israel’s Mossad. The New Yorker subsequently reported that U.S. Special Forces had engaged in similar training operations.
The MEK, which has an office in Washington, has vehemently denied such reports, which cited unidentified U.S. officials as their sources. The group has been known in more recent years to have had the support of some individuals in Mr. Trump’s inner circle. Former National Security Adviser John R. Bolton and the president’s personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, are among a wide range of current and former officials, both Republican and Democrat, who have spoken at annual MEK rallies calling for regime change in Tehran.
Still, several prominent Democrats close to Mr. Biden expressed concern about the fallout from the attack and whether hard-liners within Iran’s political system will kill the possibility of reviving the nuclear deal.
Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s pick to be White House national security adviser, signaled before last week’s events that the new U.S. administration was ready to return to the 2015 deal or seek to expand and improve it.
“If Iran is prepared to return to compliance with the Iran nuclear deal … then the United States is prepared to return to compliance with its obligations under the Iran nuclear deal,” Mr. Sullivan told a virtual event hosted by the University of Minnesota.
He said the Biden team was ready to work “intensively” on “follow-on agreements to address a range of different issues related to Iran’s nuclear program …. including other questions that were not within the remit of the original [2015 deal].”
Sen. Christopher Murphy, Connecticut Democrat and close ally of Mr. Biden, suggested that the incident could have been authorized to undermine the presumptive president-elect’s goal for a detente.
“If the primary purpose of the killing of Mr. Fakhrizadeh was to make it harder to restart the Iran nuclear agreement, then this assassination does not make America, Israel or the world safer,” tweeted Mr. Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Mr. Biden’s transition team declined to comment Monday. A member of the team told The Times only, “We plan to respect the principle that there’s one president at a time — and one foreign policy at a time.”