SIM Report: Middle East and Central Asia, 7

Iran: Assassination of top nuclear scientist worsens deteriorating relations with US and Israel, further jeopardising prospects of diplomatic re-engagement in 2021

On Friday (27 November) Iran’s Ministry of Defence and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL) confirmed the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, widely recognised as the country's most senior nuclear scientist and head of the organisation of defensive innovation and research (SPND). US and Israeli intelligence agencies have also previously identified Fakhrizadeh as an instrumental player in Iran’s covert nuclear weapons programme. His death marks the fifth Iranian nuclear scientist to have been killed in targeted assassinations since 2010. It is also the second assassination of a high profile Iranian figure since January when Qasem Soleimani, a major general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), was killed in a targeted US drone strike.    

In the days following, senior Iranian government officials, including President Hassan Rhouhani and foreign minister Javad Zarif, have indicated that they believe Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad, played an instrumental role in the assassination. On 9 December, deputy commander of the IRGC, Ali Fadavi, announced that several arrests had been made, signaling that individuals inside the country may have also facilitated the attack.

Accounts over the way in which Fakhrizadeh was killed continue to change. On 6 December, Fadavi said that a satellite-controlled machine gun fitted with artificial intelligence and advanced camera systems was used, while no gunmen were present. What remains clear is that this attack was carried out with a high level of sophistication and has left the country’s defence systems looking vulnerable to infiltration, factors that will have undoubtedly worked to humiliate Tehran on the international stage.

Iran’s response has predictably been one of outrage, with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stating that the immediate priority was the ‘definitive punishment of the perpetrators and those who ordered [the attack]’. He notably also published an opinion piece in the hardline Kayham newspaper on 29 November, advising government leaders to attack Haifa, a port city in Israel, if investigations concluded Israeli involvement in the assassination.  Despite this inflammatory rhetoric, over a week has passed and no retaliatory attacks have been carried out against Israel or its allies. While this lack of action reflects a longstanding practice by Iran to avoid direct conflict, it more likely serves as an indication of the internal disputes taking place between hardliners and conservative factions on one side and moderates and reformists on the other regarding options for retaliation.


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