Iran’s top nuclear scientists that both U.S. and Israeli officials have said was the driving force behind the country’s effort to build a nuclear weapon was killed Friday in a daytime ambush outside Tehran. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said there was “serious indications of Israeli role” in the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. And he wasn’t alone. One American and two other intelligence officials told the New York Times that Israel was behind the attack. Israel declined to comment but many immediately recalled that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said “remember that name” when he talked publicly about Fakhrizadeh in 2018.
It’s still unclear how much the United States knew about the attack in advance but it comes at a time of increased tension between Washington and Tehran as some raised the possibility that President Donald Trump could order an attack on Iran before leaving office. It at least immediately appeared to be part of an effort by Israel and Washington to use what is left of President Donald Trump’s administration to apply pressure on Iran before President-elect Joe Biden takes office, notes Axios. Trump retweeted Israeli journalist Yossi Melman, who described the attack as a “major psychological and professional blow for Iran.”
Some said Fakhrizadeh was key to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Israeli officials, for example, told media outlets in Israel that it would be difficult for Iran to continue its nuclear program without him. But others played down his role in recent years. The Washington Post says that while he was once the “driving force” behind Tehran’s efforts to build a nuclear weapon nearly 20 years ago, his current role was “less direct” and the killing “would likely have a limited impact” on the country’s nuclear capabilities. In an article in Haaretz, Melman agrees with that assessment saying any effect on Iran’s nuclear program would be temporary as “a scientist just as talented will be found to replace anyone who has been bumped off.”
The killing Friday marked the third high-profile attack that angered leaders in Tehran this year, notes the Post. In January, a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad killed Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the top military commander. And it was recently revealed that in August, Israeli agents killed al-Qaida’s second-highest leader in Iran at the behest of the United States. The killing of Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah took place on Aug. 7, the anniversary of the 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which he allegedly helped to mastermind.
The killing of Fakhrizadeh, and any further action that is taken before Trump leaves office, could end up complicating Biden’s effort to revive the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal once he is sworn-in. The Biden team didn’t immediately comment on the assassination.
Support work like this for just $1
Slate is covering the stories that matter to you. Become a Slate Plus member to support our work. Your first month is only $1.