Iran threatens to accelerate nuclear programme after top scientist assassinated

Borzou Daragahi
·5-min read
<p>Anger in Iran over the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh last week</p> (Reuters)

Anger in Iran over the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh last week

(Reuters)

An assassination aimed at setting back Iran’s nuclear programme appears instead to have bolstered a move to accelerate it, with the country’s parliament passing a law that requires an increase in the output and purity of its nuclear material and a reduction in cooperation with international inspectors unless sanctions are quickly removed.

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a secretive military scientist described as the father of Iran’s long-dormant and clandestine nuclear weapons programme, was killed in an elaborate, though still murky, operation on Friday, in what American media, citing unnamed US officials, reported was an Israeli operation.

Iranian news reports allege that the assassination involved a group of operatives who have since been publicly identified in photographs distributed online.

The killing has outraged Iranian officials. On Wednesday, Iran’s parliament, the Majles, rushed through a law – then approved by the Council of Guardians, which vets all legislation – requiring Iran to begin producing uranium enriched to 20 per cent purity; such a level of enrichment is regarded as adequate for medical research, and though not enough for a bomb, is still far above the 5 per cent necessary for civilian nuclear reactors. The parliament also called on Iran to rescind its voluntary adherence to an increased regime of inspections of its nuclear facilities.

The measures will come into effect within two months if Iran does not receive sanctions relief, according to local news outlets. Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, who served as the country’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005, rejected the law and urged patience and caution, complaining that the parliament was attempting to tie his hands and complicate diplomatic efforts to restore the 2015 nuclear deal that Tehran and world powers signed and the US has tried to sabotage. Ultimately, Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, in consultation with other top Iranian officials, would have the final say on a decision to drastically breach the nuclear deal.

“Let those who have 20-something years of experience in this arena and know what they are doing and have had success at diplomacy and have defeated America multiple times at the United Nations in the past three years do their job,” Mr Rouhani said during a meeting on Thursday.

Pressure on Mr Rouhani is building, however. A group of hundreds of hardline academics signed an open letter demanding that Iran immediately expel all inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitor Iran’s nuclear facilities.

“Experience has shown that, unfortunately, some of these inspectors are spies who, by giving information about nuclear and defence activities and figures to the foreign intelligence and espionage apparatus, have paved the ground for martyrdom of our scientists,” read the letter.

Western officials have for years suspected Iran of pursuing nuclear weapons capability under the guise of a civilian atomic energy and research programme. The 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran, the US, the UK and other world powers placed limits on Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for relief from debilitating sanctions, and other economic and scientific incentives. In 2018, though, Donald Trump’s administration in the US withdrew from the deal and reimposed crippling economic measures.

Since last year, Iran has been slowly ramping up its stockpiles of fissile material and breaching other aspects of the 2015 deal. The US president-elect, Joe Biden, has vowed to re-join the deal, which was negotiated by his former boss Barack Obama.

The killing of Fakhrizadeh makes that more complicated, though not impossible, say experts.

In a show of defiance against the US sanctions, the government in Tehran proposed a 2021-2022 budget this week that increased overall defence spending, including funds for the Defence Innovation and Research Organisation, which Fakhrizadeh oversaw.

Former Israeli officials have described Fakhrizadeh as the scientist behind Iran’s secret, years-long effort to produce a nuclear bomb – a programme that ended in 2003, according to the assessment of western intelligence officials. Over the last 17 years, he was suspected of being a coordinator of sorts, helping Iran keep open possible paths to transforming its declared civilian nuclear technology programme for military aims.

“His role was to keep shifting the nuclear programme around organisations – so the scientists are happy and the funding keeps going – for when they decide to go for the weapon,” Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli intelligence official, said in a briefing. “The pattern is: I am running these experts; I will disperse them in organisations and universities until the day I need to go to the last push towards the bomb.”

However, other experts say Iran’s nuclear knowhow is by now so thoroughly disseminated and robust that Fakhrizadeh’s loss, though a blow to morale, may have little material effect on its programme. Fakhrizadeh, though an important figurehead and manager, has likely already been eclipsed by teams of younger scientists who have been turned out for decades by Iran’s elite universities, which regularly produce graduates who go on to excel internationally.

“They said he was a pretty good mentor,” says Fabian Hinz, a non-proliferation specialist who has been closely monitoring Iran’s nuclear and missiles programmes. “He was said to be good at mobilising the private sector. Because of the nature of the Iranian system, if you want to have success, you need to have scientific knowledge and be a great manager, and have political connections and stay clear of the toxic parts of the political discourse. If you put all of that together, it’s a very difficult combination to find.”

Non-proliferation experts have cited an attack in 2011 on Iran’s advanced missile system programme, which killed the officer overseeing the country’s solid-fuel rockets. Iran quickly replaced the team, built a new and better facility, and continues to accelerate its development of solid-fuel propelled missiles.

Despite the assassination of Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, who negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal, insisted on Thursday that diplomatic channels remained open, including for the exchange of prisoners. “We can always engage in that. It is in the interests of everybody,” he said in a video conference. “Iran is ready to reciprocate. We can do it tomorrow. We can also do it today.”

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