The world awoke on Friday with the news that the leading Iranian nuclear scientist was killed outside Tehran. Earlier today, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a high-ranking officer of the dreaded Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran, was assassinated in an ambush in a remote village east of the Iranian capital.
Contrary to much of the media coverage of the incident, Fakhrizadeh was far more than just an outstanding nuclear expert. He was also the architect of Iran’s nuclear weapons program and a pioneer of the Islamic Republic’s efforts to secretly acquire an offensively oriented nuclear arsenal. And while his political leaders are understandably silent on the subject, intelligence officials firmly believe that Israel was behind the assassinations as part of a new Jerusalem push to derail Iran’s nuclear program.
So why now? As various commentators have noted, the timing has everything to do with American policy. Quite simply, officials in Jerusalem are deeply nervous that after more than two years of “maximum pressure” against Iran under President Trump, the new Biden administration may soon return to a softer approach. After all, Biden has promised to rejoin the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran – the same agreement that half a decade ago helped stabilize the Islamic Republic’s faltering economy and encouraged an expansion of Iran’s regional influence. It is a concern that persists among Israeli leaders despite reassuring noises from liberal foreign policy circles in Washington. And it is probably the reason why Israel has chosen to target Iran’s nuclear program now, while still enjoying relative freedom of action from Washington.
But Fakhrizadeh had also been in Israel’s crosshairs for some time. When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly confirmed about two and a half years ago that his country’s secret service, the Mossad, had carried out a daring raid and captured a secret archive with details of the Iranian regime’s illegal nuclear work, the scientist’s name played an important role in the resulting revelations. For years, Fakhrizadeh had spearheaded the “Amad Plan,” as Iran’s nuclear weapons program was known, before breaking off almost a decade ago to head a separate research organization, the SPND, to further the regime’s goals. “Remember that name, Fakhrizadeh,” Netanyahu had said at the time.
Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, was even clearer. In an interview with the Israeli television station Kan in 2018, the former prime minister hinted that the Iranian scientist was a target for Israel’s secret service. “I know Fakhrizadeh well. He does not know how well I know him. If I met him on the street, I would most likely recognize him,” Olmert remarked. “He has no immunity, he had no immunity, and I don’t think he will have immunity. Israel now seems to have heeded Olmert’s warning.
But Friday’s killing has another facet: it reflects what amounts to a significant change in strategy on the part of the Jewish state. For years there has been speculation that Israel might eventually decide to take unilateral action against Iran’s nuclear program, which poses the greatest external threat to its security. The possibility of an Israeli military strike on Iranian nuclear sites is still on the table today, but is an option that is hampered by a harsh reality: It is simply not possible to bombard knowledge.
Over the past two decades, Iran has amassed a vast cadre of experts, scientists and engineers to advance its nuclear efforts. In return, the Iranian regime has found great comfort in the thought that these specialists, spread across the length and breadth of its national nuclear efforts, provide a kind of guarantee that any military strike would prove to be at best a temporary setback in the regime’s path to the bomb.
Changing this calculation has naturally become a growing priority for Jerusalem. In the last ten years, no less than five high-ranking Iranian nuclear scientists have been killed in a variety of very public ways. The assassination of Fakhrizadeh is only the most recent part of this pattern.
It remains to be seen whether this campaign will have a lasting effect on Iran’s nuclear trajectory. However, the larger message it is trying to convey is crystal clear. Israel is pointing out to Iranian nuclear scientists that the profession they have chosen could prove to be extremely dangerous to their health and that they should wisely look for another occupation.
Ilan Berman is Senior Vice President of the American Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author.