Why Was A Scientist Assassinated In Iran?

On Nov 27th, Iran’s top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was assassinated in the capital, Tehran. He was traveling in a car with his wife.  

Iran claims that a machine gun mounted on a car and controlled remotely by a satellite was used to target the scientist. They say AI (Artificial Intelligence) and facial recognition technology helped zoom in on the scientist. 

Iran has blamed Israel for the attack though Israel has neither confirmed nor denied it. Why was Fakhrizadeh targeted and what does it have to do with Iran’s nuclear program? Let’s find out. 

Iran’s Nuclear Program

The U.S. gave Iran its first nuclear reactor in the 1950s, hoping to demonstrate that nuclear energy could be used for constructive purposes, not only bombs.

From the late 1980s to the early 2000s, it created enriched uranium (needed for nuclear bombs) with highly restricted technology. This alarmed other countries. 

Although Iran officially dismantled its nuclear weapons program in 2003, American and Israeli intelligence reported a secret effort to develop a bomb. Over the next decade, Israel (Iran’s neighbor, and nemesis) launched cyberattacks on an Iranian nuclear fuel production site, assassinated lower-level nuclear officials, and seized top-secret Iran papers. 

The U.S. too tried to curb Iran’s nuclear production and placed sanctions meant to hurt Iran’s economy. In 2015, under President Obama, Iran agreed to a deal to allow nuclear inspectors. However, In 2018, President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal and this has led to a worsening of Iran-U.S. relations.

Iran, however, has insisted that its nuclear program is only for civilian purposes and is not used for producing nuclear weapons. 

Who Was Fakhrizadeh?

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was a physicist who worked for Iran’s Defense Research Organization. He was considered to be behind Iran’s nuclear program until 2003, and Israel claims he was continuing to develop nuclear technology secretly. He was also said to have been leading an effort to create a COVID-19 vaccine as Iran is among the countries badly affected by the pandemic. 

Some believe that the Trump presidency has given Israel a free hand. Israel and Iran have a tense relationship because of Iran’s support for radical groups that oppose Israel. With Trump losing the election, Israel may have chosen this window of opportunity to carry out the attack. 

The assassination has allowed some in Iran to argue against reconciliation with the West. President-elect Biden has vowed to reenter the nuclear deal and ease sanctions, hoping to relax Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign. 

As the killing deepens popular discontent and hardline views in Iran, the future of U.S.-Iranian relations is uncertain. Officials are unsure about the larger impact of the killing, but Iran’s nuclear development continues to worry international peers. 

Sources: New York Times, Al Jazeera, NPR, Economist

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