While only a few weeks ago, it seemed that tensions with Iran were on the downswing after fury over the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani, the killing of an Iranian nuclear scientist has upended progress made to mend the diplomatic gap. On November 27, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed while on the road with his wife. There is no consensus on the precise weapon or attacker, but Fakhrizadeh received 13 bullets to his body, which proved to be fatal. Following the attack, a nearby pickup truck exploded, likely due to a bomb planted within the vehicle.
Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a former physics professor, was appointed to lead a 1989 Iranian nuclear weapons project and was a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, an elite Iranian military unit. His involvement in nuclear projects garnered him relative fame both within Iran and among the international community. While the nuclear weapons project, named “Project Amad,” was allegedly shut down in 2003, many believe that the work continued in secret, still led by Fakhrizadeh.
He also helped to develop a Covid-19 testing system for Iran when the country was struck with rising infections. Since the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement that established limitations on Iran’s civilian nuclear enrichment program, the creation of a nuclear weapon has accelerated, and international agreements relating to uranium and enrichment have been violated. Most notably, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, claimed Fakhrizadeh had been building a nuclear weapon. Netanyahu was also quoted saying, “remember that name” in reference to the scientist.
The international community has not reached a clear consensus on the events of the murder. The perpetrator of the attack remains unknown. That being said, Iran has proposed a theory received with mixed reaction by many governments and analysts. According to Iranian officials, Israel made use of a remote-controlled machine gun to kill Fakhrizadeh. An Iranian official later added that the weapon was activated by a “satellite-controlled smart system” and that Israel also used Artificial Intelligence technology to kill the scientist. While Israel did not directly respond to the allegation, a security cabinet minister, Yoav Galant, maintained that the existence of such technology is outside of his knowledge, instead claiming that he saw “a great deal of embarrassment on the Iranian side.” Other Iranian sources declare initial reports and eyewitness accounts describe a firefight between the scientist’s bodyguards and several attackers, with some accounts stating around a dozen attackers. Israel rebuffed this claim and subsequently attempted to prove their noninvolvement, declaring that their assassinations do not occur in such a manner.
While evidence of direct involvement by Israel in the killing has not come to light yet, there is historical documentation of Israeli involvement in Iranian affairs. If the rumor that this was an Israeli sponsored assassination is proven correct, it would not be the first time Israel has sponsored or planned the murder of Iranian scientists. From 2010 to 2012, Israel assassinated four Iranian scientists and nearly killed a fifth. Israel has historically been opposed to Iranian nuclear activities and is critical of actions taken by Iran in the Middle East. Moreover, the unmanned technology described by Iran is not unlike the technology currently used by the Israeli military. Rafael Advanced Defence Systems, a company with close links to the Israeli Defence Forces, describes one of its weapons technologies (the SAMSON) as being a “high-performance remote-control weapon station.” In addition, President Donald Trump had been discussing a possible strike on Iranian nuclear facilities only weeks before the assassination.
The Iranian response is fueled by the support of its people, who expressed great anger over the recent political assassinations and U.S. sanctions. The Iranian representative to the United Nations demanded an investigation into the assassination and a condemnation of the actions taken. While officials have stated that the killing was a violation of international law, the UN security council has not considered taking any action. Iranian military and government officials have declared that they will seek revenge for the killing and have begun referring to Fakhrizadeh as the “martyr doctor.” The assassination and recent unexplained fires in Iranian nuclear facilities have prompted the Iranian government to further bolster its nuclear spending and research programs. According to recent investigations, construction of a larger, underground nuclear facility is underway near the Natanz nuclear facility site. The government has also doubled nuclear spending in response to the killing, worrying many about the future of a new nuclear deal.American President-elect Joe Biden and his team have been put in a difficult situation by the killing, regardless of the perpetrator. His advisors expressed that they will seek to form another nuclear control deal with Iran. However, with Iran’s outraged populace and increased dedication to the continuation of its nuclear program, an agreement about the specifications in a new deal seems unlikely. In addition, Israel has advocated for a more aggressive approach towards Iran, something the Trump administration was particularly receptive to and in favor of. Despite what the situation may be, it remains a fact that relations between the US-Israel coalition and Iran have only continued to deteriorate. Each path proposed has its pros and cons, but an outcome where both sides benefit is not very likely. Nonetheless, policy-makers will have to seriously look into the instability of the Middle East and reconsider the U.S. position in order to reach something resembling an equitable relationship.