The assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the Iranian nuclear scientist who was a driving force behind Iran’s nuclear weapon program, which most attribute to Israel, poses a difficult problem for the Iranian regime in this time of transition.
Fakhrizadeh’ s killing — on a road in east of Tehran — was the third high-profile attack to shake Tehran’s leadership in less than a year, which showed glaring holes in Iran’s intelligence networks — nearly a decade after targeted bombings and gun ambushes killed at least four people with links to the Iranian program.
Thus far Israel has declined any comment on the attack, as one might expect with respect to any clandestine or covert operation. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has previously identified Fakhrizadeh and his work as the “father” of the Iranian nuclear weapons program and there is little doubt that this was in fact another Israeli operation aimed at the Iranian nuclear weapons program. In this position Fakhrizadeh was the head of the Amad Plan, as well as Projects 110 and 111, Iran’s the secret nuclear weapons program that sought to develop as many as six nuclear bombs.
Underlying such covert operations is the fact that Iran has for years consistently lied about their nuclear weapons program, and public statements that their nuclear program was only for “peaceful purposes” and the weapons program either did not exist or was terminated in 2003 are laughable.
A 2018 Israeli operation in Tehran, later made public by Mr. Netanyahu, stole thousands of documents related to this program that proved Iran had been lying all along. Documents stolen by Israeli operatives and smuggled out of the country include reports and handwritten notes signed by Fakhrizadeh, directing a series of experiments aimed at mastering key technical challenges in the construction of a nuclear weapon.
Most recently, the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium is now 12 times the level permitted under the 2015 nuclear agreement, known as the JCPOA, and also noted that Iran is adding more advanced centrifuges to speed enrichment. Studies by the BESA Center and others detail how Iran has cheated on what was at best a flawed agreement while Iran continues to move forward toward an operational nuclear capability.
While Israel opposed the 2015 JCPOA to begin with, its military and intelligence establishment also opposed a direct military strike on Iran, with or without the U.S., and has focused on covert operations that directly impede the program. One successful effort was the Stuxnet computer worm made public in 2010 that targeted Iranian centrifuges and was attributed to a joint U.S. Israeli operation, and was covertly inserted into the Iranian system by Israeli operatives in Iran.
It has been reported that virtually the entire budget of the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service, has long been devoted to Iran and has resulted in the most significant clandestine capability the world has seen in many decades. Clearly, Mossad is able to operate with impunity, both in the technical area as well as in assassination of terrorist leaders and key figures in Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Without question these operations are driving the Iranian leadership crazy, and they obviously have no ability to locate or stop Israeli operations. For a country that has excelled in suppressing internal dissent and arresting opposition leaders, they have failed miserably in countering Israel, It is a monumental embarrassment to their security services which are unlikely to disrupt future targeted attacks.
What then is the utility of such covert operations? Most experts believe that Fakhrizadeh was no longer running the program and critical to it as he was in starting Iran’s nuclear program in the post-revolution era, and shaping the weapons phase of the program. Most experts argue that there is no reason to expect his death will have any serious effect on Iran’s current nuclear program.
At the same time, his death sends a clear signal to those who are now in charge of the Iranian nuclear weapons program that they are in Israeli crosshairs and could be next. They are not so stupid to believe that their role in the program and locations are somehow secret, and Israel will not stop in eliminating this aspect of the threat. Certainly, they understand their own government is unable to protect them and Israel has the upper hand.
So far the Iranian response has been limited to the expected rhetoric vowing revenge and Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatamani has only pledged “punishment” with no specifics, while the Iranian press has speculated about a missile strike on the Israeli city of Haifa. An overt attack by the Iranians in response to covert operations is both unlikely and incredibly stupid.
Presumably, Israel has made it clear to the Iranian leadership through some backchannel that such a strike would be out-of-bounds, and the leadership itself would be targets for assassination. Israel has in fact used such threats dealing with the Hamas in Gaza and has previously targeted hostile leaders and their families. The Iranians know this and would hopefully take this into their calculations.
A more likely Iranian response would be a covert response, targeting Israeli diplomats and other officials in some third country, such as in Europe. Certainly, the Israelis are aware of such a possibility and are taking precautions to protect their nationals abroad. Even if Iran could pull off such a killing, it does little for their cause. It would not end sanctions or help their imploding economy or the COVID-19 crisis. Further, it would not deter Israel from targeting other Iranian nuclear scientists, military officers or political leaders.
For years, Iran has protected its secret nuclear weapons program with physical protection of their multiple facilities and lying about their existence, while critical computer software and key personnel have remained vulnerable – which Israel has thus far been successful in attacking. Clearly, Iran has an internal security problem which it is presently incapable of solving and Israel has no intention of letting them off the hook.
At present, despite the inflammatory rhetoric, it is more likely that Iran will just wait out Donald Trump’s presidency, a theme that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has argued, and will look to a new era in relations with the U.S., and the ability of the U.S. to control Israel’s covert actions program in Iran.
No one doubts that Mr. Biden and his team will resume negotiations with Iran, but few on either side see a return to the 2015 agreement or prior conditions are acceptable or even possible. Critical here is that now far too much is known about the Iranian program and those who are implementing it. Until a realistic solution to the overall problem can be achieved, it should not be expected that Israel will abandon covert operations aimed at eliminating the Iranian nuclear threat in the most practical way.
• Abraham Wagner has served in several national security positions, including the NSC Staff under Presidents Nixon and Ford.