The assassination of the chief architect of Iran’s nuclear program Mohsen Fakhrizadeh last month marks a turning point for the country. It reveals a harsh truth, that adversarial forces against Iran have infiltrated its intelligence and security forces. Unsure on how to move forward, Iranian authorities have offered different versions of the assassination and have given vague promises of revenge. Despite internal pressures on the Iranian government to ends its self-proclaimed “strategic patience,” it is unlikely to respond strongly considering the upcoming inauguration of the Biden administration next month.
Fakhrizadeh, who led Iran’s Defense Ministry Organization for Research and Innovation (SEPAND), was assassinated in broad daylight near the capital Tehran despite attempts to keep his whereabouts unknown.
Iran blamed the usual suspect, (i.e., Israel), for the assassination. But while opponents of Iran’s nuclear negotiations with the West flooded Iranian streets calling for war against the United States, which they blame for providing Israel with the green light to assassinate Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s leadership appeared much more hesitant and cautious.
Publicly, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Commander Hossein Salami and the Iranian government spokesperson Ali Rabiei vowed to avenge Fakhrizadeh’s assassination. However, President Hassan Rouhani said it was best to avoid an escalation that might lead to an outright conflict. Instead, Rouhani is keen to resume nuclear talks with the incoming Biden administration to end the economic sanctions against Iran which have crippled the Iranian economy, constraining its expansionist plans and heaping pressure on its internal economic plans to deal with deteriorating socioeconomic conditions and the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Iranian Minister of Intelligence Mahmoud Alavi gave no details about the assassination, but Iranian media outlets were informed about a gun fight that took place resulting in Fakhrizadeh’s death. Contradicting this narrative, Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani said that electronic devices were involved in the assassination without individual attackers on the ground.
Furthermore, to add more uncertainty to the details of the assassination, Fereydoun Abbasi Davani, a member of Iran’s Parliament, said the assassination was carried out through sniper attacks, and that a nearby Nissan car was blown up in an attempt to kill Fakhrizadeh’s 11 bodyguards. Former IRGC Commander Mohsen Rezaee said advanced NATO weapons were involved in the assassination.
Finally, Mehdi and Hamed Fakhrizadeh, the deceased scientist’s sons, said he was with his wife when the assassination took place, but despite their mother’s efforts to shield her husband, bullets passed by her to strike Fakhrizadeh.
It is not clear which one of these narratives is true, but what is evident is that via the multiple contradicting narratives, the Iranian government is attempting to conceal the bitter truth about the failure of Iranian intelligence and security agencies in protecting Fakhrizadeh.
Two weeks after Fakhrizadeh’s assassination, Iran’s government continued to issue vague statements about the incident. According to Fakhrizadeh’s sons, several organizations are investigating the assassination. According to reports, these organizations are at loggerheads with each other.
Figures close to the IRGC including Javad Karimi Ghodoosi, a member of the Iranian Parliament, blamed Rouhani’s government for failing to protect Fakhrizadeh. To exonerate its failure, the government claims that Iran’s security and intelligence agencies were aware of an impending attack. The IRGC said that Iran succeeded in keeping Fakhrizadeh alive despite attempts on his life over the past two decades, indicating the success of Iran’s intelligence and security agencies in protecting the country’s highly valuable assets.
Debates inside Iran about the country’s future options in the aftermath of the assassination are vague. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sent a message during Fakhrizadeh’s funeral, calling for the perpetrators to be punished and for his invaluable work to continue. SEPAND’s budget for this year subsequently doubled. Iran’s Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi vowed to help to unveil the infiltration network involved in Fakhrizadeh’s assassination.
Former IRGC Commander Hussein Alaee said that the assassination exposed the weakness of Iran’s security and Israel’s ability to infiltrate deep into the country. He predicted more assassinations would take place and called for the Israeli-led intelligence network in Iran to be uprooted. Hossein Amir Abdollahian, an adviser in Iran’s Parliament, said the perpetrators were being identified and would be exposed soon. He confirmed that some perpetrators had already been arrested.
Abdollahian refused to divulge further information about the assassination, citing the need to preserve critical intelligence for the time being. But he insisted that Israel could not have carried out the attack without the help and knowledge of the United States.
Iran’s Parliament passed a two-tier bill, put in motion over four months ago, which aims to curtail dialogue with the United States over the country’s nuclear program. Although Rouhani’s government insists that the bill will not impede future negotiations, the Parliament accelerated the bill’s approval following the assassination.
A larger question bothering officials in Iran these days is why the country’s key figures are being assassinated. In early January, the United States assassinated Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani in Iraq, who was the mastermind behind Iran’s extraterritorial military activities. Fakhrizadeh was known as the Soleimani of Iran’s nuclear program.
Some experts have argued that the motivation to assassinate Fakhrizadeh was to test whether Iran would continue to build a strong nuclear program or not. According to Iran’s Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the assassination will only accelerate the country’s work to fulfill Fakhrizadeh’s ambition to build a strong nuclear program.
A few voices in Iran are calling on the country’s leaders to respond to the assassination to end the maximum pressure policy on Iran via assassinations. They argue that it is important to react decisively and quickly to Fakhrizadeh’s death. Such action will signal that Iran will not be forced into moderating its positions and that such acts will always be met with a resolute response from Tehran. It will also signal the cohesion of the country’s intelligence and security agencies when it comes to avenging Fakhrizadeh’s death.
In a speech given before his death, Fakhrizadeh insisted that Iran should accept no setback over its nuclear program. Some observers in Iran share this sentiment, arguing that showing restraint is to give the green light to the enemy to continue sabotaging Iran’s Islamic government and assassinating the figures who lead it.
Iran might decide not to escalate, and to exercise strategic patience by convincing itself that the assassination of Fakhrizadeh indicates the country’s enemies are unable to confront it directly. Iran is being urged by its neighbors and the International Atomic Energy Agency to avoid escalating tensions following the assassination.
But Salami says Iran must advance its scientific capacity so as not to be held back by its enemies. Salami insists that the Zionist regime will pay a heavy price for Fakhrizadeh’s assassination at the appropriate time, without specifying when and how.