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The Hit on Iran's Chief Nuclear Weapons Scientist—Questions, Tentative Answers

Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP

On Friday, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s chief nuclear-weapons scientist, was assassinated while driving on a street in Absard — a retreat for the Iranian elite, near Tehran, where Fakhrizadeh had a private villa.

The next day the New York Times, basing itself on an online post by a documentary filmmaker for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, gave this account of the killing:

An empty Nissan parked at a roundabout exploded, knocking down a power line. Gunmen leapt from a parked Hyundai Santa Fe, others arrived on motorcycles and waiting snipers filled out a hit team of 12 assassins….

Mr. Fakhrizadeh, hit with at least three bullets, tumbled from his car and fell bleeding on the ground…. All 12 assassins escaped unharmed, and Mr. Fakhrizadeh was pronounced dead by the time a rescue helicopter was able to transport him to a Tehran hospital.

Yet Iran’s semiofficial Fars News Agency now gives quite a different account:

According to Fars, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was on his way with his wife to a vacation in their home in the outskirts of Tehran, findings of an Iranian investigation have shown.

The two drove in a convoy of four vehicles in total, three belonging to security personnel. At one point, the vehicle that led the convoy drove ahead in order to conduct a routine checkup of Fakhrizadeh’s home.

This was when bullets flew toward the vehicle of Fakhrizadeh, prompting him to a halt. Fakhrizadeh got out of the car after assuming he hit an object on the road or that there was some problem with the engine.

When he was out in the open, an unmanned Nissan vehicle — which stood some 500 feet away — opened fire at the scientist.

The investigation concluded that a remotely controlled machine gun was installed in the Nissan vehicle, and that Fakhrizadeh was hit by three bullets, one hitting him in the spine.

Several seconds after the hit the firing vehicle exploded in order not to leave any evidence behind, according to the report. The whole operation took three minutes and did not involve any assassins, Fars reported.

Even before the Fars account surfaced, the New York Times commented, basing itself on former CIA official Bruce Riedel, that:

Seldom has any country demonstrated a similar ability to strike with apparent impunity inside the territory of its fiercest enemy….

“It’s unprecedented,” [Riedel] said. “And it shows no sign of being effectively countered by the Iranians.

Which was the country that demonstrated this ability — all the more unprecedented if the Fars version about a remotely controlled machine gun is right? (Update: Now Iranian news sites are saying it was a satellite-controlled weapon.) It’s hard to argue with the widespread assumption that it was Israel — via, of course, the Mossad. Israel and the U.S. are the only real possibilities, and Israel has for years demonstrated a deep intelligence penetration of Iran and the ability to carry out hits — and heists — seemingly at will there.

Was any country apart from Israel in on the plans? On November 18 and 19, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Israel. On November 24, Pompeo, Benjamin Netanyahu, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met “covertly” — though it ended up being widely publicized — in Neom, Saudi Arabia.

Did Israeli leaders and Pompeo talk about finally doing away with Fakhrizadeh? It’s quite plausible. Was Salman let in on it? It’s less likely but not impossible.

In any case, why now? Fakhrizadeh “had a target on his back for over fifteen years” and “taught physics once a week at the [Revolutionary] Guards’ own university, but spent the rest of his time keeping alive the option of building a nuclear warhead that could fit atop one of Iran’s growing fleet of missiles.”

The New York Times rushed to proclaim that the aim of the assassination  was to “cripple President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal before he can even begin his diplomacy with Tehran.”

It’s true that there are hardliners in Iran who oppose negotiating with the Great Satan and more pragmatic types who favor “diplomacy” as a way to get the U.S. sanctions lifted. Some claim the Fakhrizadeh assassination gives the hardliners the upper hand. But probably not; decision-making ultimately rests with Ayatollah Khamenei, and if he sees negotiations with Biden as offering the best hope to rescue Iran from its economic plight and get funds flowing again for “exporting the revolution,” the assassination isn’t likely to stop him.

More plausible is that the timing has to do with Israel’s wanting to make the most of the highly pro-Israel, anti-mullahs Trump administration’s remaining time in office — and quite possibly, with the U.S. administration’s own desire to make the most of that time.

How serious is the blow to Iran?

Amos Yadlin, a former chief of Israel’s military intelligence and now director of its top security think tank, says it’s very serious:

Fakhrizadeh…was so central to the Islamic Republic’s secret nuclear weapons program that it will be hard to replace him with somebody of equal stature, the former head of Israel’s military intelligence said.

“There is no doubt that he was the core source of authority, knowledge and organization of this program,” said Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amos Yadlin.

Many experts share Yadlin’s view, especially in light of the now widely accepted conclusion that the U.S. assassination of Quds Force chief Qasem Soleimani last January has substantially weakened the Iranian black-ops outfit.

Yadlin, for his part,

listed Fakhrizadeh…together with former Hezbollah number two Imad Mughniyeh (killed in 2008) and…Soleimani …as senior leaders who were invaluable to their respective organizations.

“They are people you can [nominally] replace, but there’s really no replacement for their capabilities, knowledge, leadership and the ways they knew how to lead a strategic effort,” he said.

It’s worth pointing out that Mughniyeh’s 2008 assassination in Damascus is believed to have been a joint Mossad-CIA operation.

Iran, then, may not be “on the ropes” but it’s “down.” It has had a very rough year — not only the sanctions and COVID-19, but also the Soleimani assassination, the July strike (attributed to Israel) on its Natanz centrifuge-developing complex, the August strike (attributed to Israel at the U.S.’s behest) on Al Qaeda’s second-in-command Muhammad al-Masri in Tehran — and now the Fakhrizadeh assassination with the “unprecedented” prowess it displayed.

Soon the ball will be in Joe Biden’s court. He can keep up the pressure on a malevolent, tottering regime or revert to the appeasement — which means, in this context, rescue –practiced by his former boss Obama, which would be catastrophic.

Another possibility is that before January 20 the Iranian war machine will be hit further in a way that will make it hard for even appeasers to salvage it.

P. David Hornik, a longtime American immigrant in Israel, is a freelance writer, translator, and copyeditor living in Beersheva. In addition to PJ Media his work has appeared in National Review, American Spectator, Frontpage Magazine, New English Review, American Thinker, The Times of Israel, the Jerusalem Post, and elsewhere. Among his books are Choosing Life in Israel and, newly released by Adelaide Books,  the novel And Both Shall Row.