Servants of the holy shrine of Imam Reza carrying the coffin of Iran's assassinated top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh during his funeral procession in the northeastern city of Mashhad. Photo: AFP/ Iranian Defense Ministry

RASHT – The November 27 assassination of an elite Iranian nuclear scientist, almost unanimously blamed on Israel’s intelligence apparatus, has put the Middle East on high alert and raises the specter of a military confrontation that will scupper any chance of a fast thaw in Iran-US diplomacy when US President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated.

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was a brigadier general in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a lecturer in physics at Imam Hossein University and one of the most senior scientists in Iran’s multilayered, sophisticated nuclear enterprise.

Some have referred to him as the Abdul Qadeer Khan of Iran, the “father” of Pakistan’s clandestine and ultimately successful atomic program, and compared him to likewise assassinated General Qassem Soleimani for the stature he enjoyed in the Iranian establishment.

Different accounts have been advanced by Iranian media about how he was killed. The common denominator of the narratives is that his vehicle, accompanied by two cars carrying his bodyguards, was stopped on the road by a clique of riflemen shortly after entering the Aabsard district near Tehran around 2:30 pm on Friday, and then gunfire started.

Then a pick-up truck loaded with timber and explosives passed by his car, detonating on the spot, killing his bodyguard Hamed Asghari and wounding Fakhrizadeh. He was taken to a hospital but succumbed to his injuries.

Fakhrizadeh had survived an assassination plot in 2008 when assailants on a motorcycle attached an explosive gadget to his car. He was able to drag himself out of the car shortly before it was blown up in that attack.

A handout photo made available by Iran state TV (IRIB) on November 27, 2020, shows the damaged car of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh after it was attacked near the capital Tehran. Photo: IRIB News Agency/AFP

The Israeli government has so far opted for a muted response, even though there is practically no other candidate to take responsibility for the operation. The Israeli Minister of Settlement Affairs Tzachi Hanegbi said on Saturday he had “no clue” who was behind the killing.

Reactions by Iranian officials have been homogenous in their condemnation of Israel, the promise of harsh revenge against the perpetrators and the avowal of renewed impetus to continue the advancement of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear activities.

Media reports suggest Fakhrizadeh was one of the best-protected dignitaries in Iran, especially after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu referred to his name in an April 2018 presentation about Iran’s nuclear activities, cryptically remarking to reporters at the time to “remember his name.”

As the deputy of Iran’s Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics, Fakhrizadeh was the former head of Iran’s Physics Research Center and placed on the sanctions list of the United States and United Kingdom for his purported role in helping to advance the military dimension of Iran’s nuclear initiative.

In 2014, the New York Times even compared him to J Robert Oppenheimer, the American physicist and “father of the atomic bomb.”

The UN Security Council Resolution 1747, adopted on March 24, 2007, named Fakhrizadeh as an individual involved in Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missiles activities, whom the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had asked to interview about the activities of the Physics Research Center he had chaired, but Iran refused. The resolution also subjected him to an asset freeze and travel restrictions.

A handout picture shows assassinated Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh (R) during a meeting with the Iranian supreme leader (unseen) in Tehran, January 23, 2019. Photo: AFP Forum

On social media, Iranians have been casting aspersions on Iran’s intelligence and security conglomerates for squandering their resources on arresting innocuous journalists, academics and activists as the “pawns” of the West and Israel, abetting what they deem to be an “infiltration” project, while the actual pawns and terrorists effortlessly eliminate one Iran’s towering military figures outside of the capital Tehran in broad daylight.

International reactions to the assassination were mostly measured and showed solidarity with Iran in a watershed moment. Others suggested that Israel’s extraterritorial lawlessness will draw rebuke, encouraging Iran to calibrate its next move prudently without being provoked.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell condemned the targeted killing and extended condolences to the family of the victims.

“The High Representative expresses his condolences to the family members of the individuals who were killed while wishing a prompt recovery to any other individuals who may have been injured,” read a statement by the office of Borrell, who is also the vice president of the European Commission.  

“In these uncertain times, it is more important than ever for all parties to remain calm and exercise maximum restraint in order to avoid escalation which cannot be in anyone’s interest,” the statement added.

John Brennan, the former head of the US Central Intelligence Agency under President Barack Obama, termed the attack that killed the nuclear scientist “a criminal act and highly reckless” that “risks lethal retaliation and a new round of regional conflict.” He also advised Iran to practice restraint in a show of wisdom and “resist the urge to respond against perceived culprits.”

The United Nations, for its part, condemned the assassination, as they do with “any assassination or extrajudicial killing,” while underlining the need for restraint and avoiding “any actions that could lead to an escalation of tensions in the region.”

Even Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of the pro-Israel advocacy organization J Street based in Washington, DC, described the “ongoing provocations of Iran” as manifested in the assassination of the top-tier scientist as “a transparent effort to stoke military confrontation and end to chances of diplomacy.”

In Iran, reactions to the high-profile assassination were mixed. Normally, the masses rally around the flag when provoked with foreign threats and coercion, as seen in the aftermath of America’s drone attack killing of Soleimani in January this year.

Yet Iranian hardliners opposed to President Hassan Rouhani’s moderate administration are leveraging the incident to settle an old score with their political rival.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks in Tehran on November 28, 2020. Photo: Iranian Presidency / Handout / Anadolu Agency via AFP

In Tehran, protesters gathered in front of the presidential palace and the Supreme National Security Council headquarters chanting slogans deriding Rouhani and his nascent efforts to reach out to the incoming Biden administration to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known widely as the Iran nuclear deal.

The protesters ridiculed the deal as a bungled treaty that whittled away the country’s defense capabilities and called for the expulsion from Iran of IAEA inspectors, who they called “spies.”

In the northeastern city of Mashhad, large protests broke out in front of the representative office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with hardline protesters, mostly members of the Basij militia, holding placards pillorying the ministry’s diplomats, pouring scorn on Rouhani’s government for its plans to engage in fresh negotiations with the US, and demanding Iran’s withdrawal from the JCPOA.

These rearguards are now effectively shifting the blame from Israel to Rouhani for the assassination of the lionized nuclear scientist. They claim Rouhani’s administration has been too lenient on the West, cooperated with the IAEA more than was necessary and have buried their collective heads in the sand.

Yet they have willfully forgotten that between 2010 and 2012 four Iranian nuclear scientists were killed in similar terror plots when their preferred leader, the firebrand President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was in power.

Masoud Alimohammadi, Majid Shahriari, Darioush Rezaeinejad and Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan were the well-trained, celebrated nuclear scientists who were killed in the years President Ahmadinejad defied UN Security Council resolutions on Iran’s enrichment activities.

Then, the country’s nuclear quest was in full swing and an international consensus had coalesced around squeezing Iran through political isolation and economic pressure to induce it to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

None of the protesters now seen agitating against Rouhani ever took to the streets to raise their voice and challenge the incompetence of the Ahmadinejad administration in protecting the masterminds of Iran’s atomic program.

Israel evidently pulled off the dicey mission of removing another nuclear scientist on Iranian soil.

The assassination was timed with less than 50 days left in the Donald Trump administration, with a clear eye on goading Iran into a reckless response that could set the scene for a full-fledged confrontation in the Middle East, most probably drawing the US into the conflict in support of Tel Aviv.

Now, the path to diplomacy for any administration in Tehran, whether the lame duck President Rouhani’s, whose time in office won’t outlast June 2021, or his successor speculated by many pundits to be a hardliner or IRGC commander, has become bumpier than it was before Fakhrizadeh was eliminated.

Rouhani enjoys the reputation of a moderate, internationally-minded “diplomat sheik” willing to make compromises to pull Iran’s economy out of decades-old isolation. Now, Trump and Israel have derailed his chances of success in breaking the vicious circle of Iran-West confrontation and instead emboldened the Iranian hardliners who are ill-disposed toward him.

A group of demonstrators gather to protest against the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in front of an entrance of a Foreign Ministry building in southern Tehran, Iran on November 28, 2020. Photo: Fatemeh Bahrami / Anadolu Agency via AFP

Israelis no doubt knew well that the polarizing effect of the assassination would pile domestic pressure on Rouhani by the hardliners inimical to any form of rapprochement between Iran and the US that Tel Aviv would view dimly. Now, it is not only Israel that the hardliners in Tehran are blaming for Fakhrizadeh’s killing.

Malek Shariati, a right-wing member of parliament from Tehran known for peddling eccentric conspiracy theories, added to the swirly of recriminations by implying in a tweet, without any corroborating evidence, that the assassination even had President-elect Joe Biden’s greenlight.

All of this means peace in the Middle East will remain elusive and the regeneration of the JCPOA under Biden will be a tough sale with vocal detractors in both Tel Aviv to Tehran, not to mention Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and likely holdover hawks in Trump’s administration.