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Why Was Irans Top Nuclear Scientist Assassinated?

The assassination last Friday of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the leader of Iran’s suspended program to develop nuclear weapon capabilities, was less about preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons than it was about embarrassing the current Iranian government and impeding it from negotiating a rapprochement with U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration.

Even a partial detente would require, above all, a mutual return to something like the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—the nuclear deal that Iran agreed to in 2015. That agreement, notwithstanding its necessarily negotiated compromises, had verifiably suspended the most alarming nuclear activities in Iran, which again must be the top priority of any feasible U.S. policy toward Tehran.

An Attempt to Stir the Pot

Fakhrizadeh’s assassins, and the Israeli, American, and probably Saudi leaders who sanctioned or condoned his killing, prefer conflict to hasten the demise of the hostile Iranian regime, rather than a nuclear arrangement that leaves the regime in place. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secretly met with Saudi leaders days before the assassination; it is easy to imagine that he bore news of the pending attack as a gift to encourage the Saudi normalization of relations with Israel.  

George Perkovich

Perkovich works primarily on nuclear strategy and nonproliferation issues; cyberconflict; and new approaches to international public-private management of strategic technologies.

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To believe that the assassination was primarily intended to prevent nuclear proliferation in Iran requires us to accept two things as fact: first, that Iran has decided to build nuclear weapons, and second, that the loss of one top official will change Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s mind or significantly slow the effort. All of this is questionable.

Moreover, to believe the effects of this assassination will be salutary requires assuming that Iran will not exact revenge on Israelis, Americans, or other individuals to even the score in the minds of Iranian militants.

The best that can be practically hoped for now is that Iranian leaders will resist temptations to play into the hands of the assassins and instead explore with Biden’s administration mutual steps to revive the JCPOA. For this to happen will take a lot of luck and discipline among leaders in Tehran, Washington, and other capitals.

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