But its greatest impact will be on diplomacy rather than Iran’s nuclear program
"Remember that name, Fakhrizadeh," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a 2018 press conference about Iran's nuclear program. At the time, the head of the Islamic Republic's nuclear-weapons program was unknown even to most Iranians. With his assassination outside Tehran on Friday, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh has become a household name.
The details of the killing are as yet fuzzy. State TV said that the scientist's car was attacked by "armed terrorist elements," and that he was taken to a hospital, where doctors couldn't revive him. Some reports suggested the car had first been struck by a vehicle-borne IED, and thereafter shot up by armed gunmen.
Inevitably, the regime is blaming Israel. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif claimed there were "serious indications of Israeli role."
The killing certainly has some of the hallmarks of a campaign of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists, attributed to Israel: four were killed between 2010 and 2012. Israel has never owned up to the killings, but apparently ended the campaign after pressure from President Barack Obama, who was negotiating with Tehran over what would become the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Netanyahu has always opposed the deal, and remains convinced that Iran is covertly pursuing a nuclear-weapons program. Fakhrizadeh had led that program at least until 2003, when an American intelligence report concluded it had been suspended. But after going silent for a few years, he started a research facility in Tehran, with many of the scientists who had been part of the weapons program.
Fakhrizadeh is sometimes described as Iran's Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist at the center of America's pioneering nuclear-weapons project in the 1940s. But his assassination is unlikely to make a material difference to the Iranian nuclear program, which is thought to have hundreds of scientists and sufficient institutional knowledge to carry on without Fakhrizadeh.
The main fear is that the killing will set off a chain reaction within the regime, building pressure to retaliate, whether against Israel or the US Hossein Dehghan, a former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and leading candidate in the Iranian presidential election due next summer, has already vowed revenge.
A reminder of the risk came earlier in the week, when Iran swapped an Australian scholar it was holding hostage for three men who were imprisoned in Thailand after an attempted retaliation for the 2010-12 assassinations. Sent to Bangkok to kill Israeli diplomats, they accidentally set off explosives in their own villa.
The timing of Fakhrizadeh's assassination is especially awkward for the Iranian leadership, political as well as military. The end of the mourning period — typically 40 days — will coincide with the first anniversary killing of the assassination of top commander Qassem Soleimani in a US drone strike.
To the hard-liners in the regime, it will serve as an embarrassing reminder that they have failed to exact the vengeance they swore a year ago. It doesn't help that Fakhrizadeh's importance to the nuclear program is already being likened to Soleimani's influence over Iran's international network of proxy militias. That the regime was unable to protect its top scientist, on home soil, will be all the more mortifying.
At the same time, the Iranians are acutely aware that if they can keep their cool through the last weeks of the Trump administration, they might get a better response from Joe Biden. A violent retaliation to Fakhrizadeh's killing will make it hard for the new president to offer the concessions Tehran hopes to get.
Politically, then, it might suit the regime if everybody does the opposite of what Netanyahu suggested, and forgets the name of the assassinated scientist. But the election campaign, in which hard-liners are expected to dominate, makes that well-nigh impossible. Fakhrizadeh, like the proverbial genie, will not go back into obscurity.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement