New legislation in Iran requires the government to stop cooperation with UN nuclear inspectors. Image: Youtube

Nearly one week since the high-profile assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on the outskirts of Tehran and the world is waiting to see how Iran’s rulers respond.

While a dramatic retaliatory attack may not be imminent, newly tabled legislation promises to accelerate Iran’s nuclear program in defiance of the assassination’s apparent aim of curtailing its progress and perceived threat.  

Fakhrizadeh, a brigadier general with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and a key figure in Iran’s nuclear program was ambushed and killed on November 27 in what many observers have described as an “extraterritorial targeted killing.”

Iranian authorities have reflexively blamed the attack on Israel, a narrative that has been bolstered by a New York Times report quoting an anonymous Israeli politician saying the world should “thank” Israel for the scientist’s killing.

President Hassan Rouhani’s government has so far sought to ease public outrage, with the leader saying the nation is too prudent to fall in a well-laid enemy trap. That appears to signal that Iran will not escalate the situation through reprisals that could spark a wider regional conflict and pull the US into the battle before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

Iranian hardliners, however, are leveraging the attack to advance a myopic political agenda. Iranian state TV, dominated by hardline white-collars, rearguard pundits and diehard anti-Western hosts has aired a farrago of programs lashing out at the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement and lambasting Rouhani’s administration for his overtures to the West.

Iranian forces carrying the coffin of slain top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh during his funeral ceremony in Iran’s capital Tehran, November 29, 2020. Photo: Iranian Defense Ministry via AFP Forum

Significantly, Fakhrizadeh was honored by President Rouhani in February 2016 for his role in securing the landmark 2015 nuclear deal. Now, Rouhani’s critics have gone so far as to inculpate him and his team as de facto responsible for Fakhrizadeh’s killing.

Others are calling for fiery revenge against Israel. Kayhan, Iran’s most conservative newspaper, even suggested in an op-ed that Iran should launch a retaliatory strike on Israel’s Port of Haifa, saying such an attack was necessary for “deterrence.”

As calls mount for revenge, the most radical action taken so far has been in Iran’s parliament, known as the Majlis. On Wednesday, lawmakers passed a “double-urgency” bill obliging the government to halt within two months the implementation of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Additional Protocol for verification of nuclear safeguards.

The protocol grants the UN’s nuclear watchdog “expanded rights of access to information and locations” in signatory states. Iran had agreed in the JCPOA to provisionally apply the IAEA’s additional protocol as of January 16, 2016, known as the accord’s “implementation day.”

The Majlis bill, apart from curtailing IAEA inspectors’ access to nuclear sites, also requires the government to stockpile 120 kilograms of uranium enriched to the purity of 20% annually, which is still below the level required for producing nuclear weapons but remarkably higher than the threshold set in the JCPOA.

Iran had earlier committed to keeping the level of its uranium enrichment to 3.67% for 15 years since the JCPOA’s implementation.

The parliamentary motion, unprecedented in its legislating of exact details of the country’s nuclear activities, demands the installation of a new generation of Iranian-manufactured centrifuges, called IR-2m and IR-6, at facilities in Natanz and Fordow, the latter an underground site. The legislation also mandates the construction of a new heavy water reactor.

Although unconventional for a Majlis bill, the plan has been quickly certified by the influential Guardian Council following submission by the parliament. Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, meanwhile, has presented it to President Rouhani as a law to be enacted.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran on August 22, 2020. Photo: Iranian Presidency / Handout / Anadolu Agency

The legislation provides for relevant authorities in executive bodies who refrain from implementing the terms of the bill or block its enforcement can be punished with up to 25 years in prison.

Iran’s new parliament, inaugurated on May 28 this year, is dominated by ultra-conservatives and hardliners hailing mostly with military backgrounds.

Parliament’s conservative make-up is the product of an election at which the majority of eligible voters boycotted the polls to protest economic hardships, perceived government ineptitude and lingering resentment of quelled nationwide protests in November 2019 which exposed wide rifts between the state and public.

In Tehran, the most important legislative constituency, the turnout was just slightly above 25%. Nationwide turnout was determined to be 42.6%, a historic low since the 1979 revolution.

The public’s forsaking of the polls, coupled with the widespread disqualification of pro-reform candidates by the vetting Guardian Council, gave rise to a parliament presided over by the former hardline police chief of Tehran and filled with radicals who are fundamentally opposed to any engagement with the international community.

The assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist has given the “revolutionary” parliament a tailor-made pretext to vanquish Rouhani, who ran in the 2013 presidential race on a platform of “constructive engagement” with the international community and pledged to pull Iran out of isolation through a negotiated solution to the long-running nuclear stalemate.

Rouhani did what he vowed by sealing the July 2015 nuclear deal with then-US President Barack Obama, seen by many as his signature foreign policy achievement.

When US President Donald Trump scrapped the deal and restored draconian sanctions on Teheran, it gave hardliners a new upper hand and sent Iran’s reform movement and civil society back into hibernation.

Upon the new parliament’s inauguration, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei instructed that “economy and culture” should top the agenda of incoming lawmakers. He accentuated the need for parliament to find or build lifelines for Iran’s ailing economy and ameliorate the people’s ravaged livelihoods.

Iranians wear face masks as a Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic precaution in the capital Tehran on October 19, 2020. Photo: AFP/Atta Kenare

But the parliament has also reached into the functions of the government, including in the realms of foreign policy and executive affairs, and there is no indication that it plans to change course before the June 2021 presidential election, when President Rouhani will be replaced.

In a weekly briefing on Tuesday, Iranian government spokesperson Ali Rabiei hinted at the parliament’s plan to proceed with the new legislation, which if implemented would be the kiss of death to the JCPOA, and expressed hopes that the Guardian Council would consider the national interest while deliberating the bill.

At the same time, Rabiei said decision-making on the JCPOA is not in parliament’s jurisdiction. The only reaction from President Rouhani so far has been to say his administration is opposed to the bill and considers it “harmful” to the nation’s diplomatic initiatives.

Rouhani now has five days to notify the relevant government bodies of the law’s coming into force and release it as a public announcement in the Official Gazette, or initiate instead a dispute with a panel tasked with solving conflicts between the three branches of government on grounds that he doesn’t consider the enactment of the legislation consistent with national security.

He can also seek to secure an intervention by Supreme Leader Khamenei in favor of safeguarding the JCPOA and overturning the bill. But given Khamenei’s reluctance to throw his weight behind the JCPOA more than he has done so far, his intervention is unlikely.

The implementation of the bill and its stringent technical provisions will no doubt draw the consternation of the JCPOA’s European signatories who have fought tooth and nail against the Trump administration to preserve the deal. The EU was also promptly and sharply critical of Fakhrizadeh’s assassination.

The bill, if passed and implemented, could prompt the reintroduction of all UN Security Council sanctions against Iran, which the JCPOA had revoked. Even Russia and China, Iran’s top international backers, could support new punitive Security Council resolutions if Iran substantially violates the JCPOA.

Atomic enrichment facilities at Natanz nuclear power plant some 300 kilometers south of capital Tehran. Photo: AFP / Atomic Energy Organization of Iran

Iranian parliamentarians who support the bill have already argued its technical measures will coax the Europeans into buying Iranian oil and normalizing their banking relations with Tehran, so as to prevent the Islamic Republic from taking more drastic steps in breach of the JCPOA.

The Federation of American Scientists, a US think tank, estimated in 2013 that Iran’s nuclear program had cost the nation US$100 billion. A later report by the Arab Strategy Forum in Dubai put the figure at a whopping $500 billion as of 2018.

Without clarifying the goals of the new JCPOA-busting legislation and without coming to a comprehensive understanding with the international community about its scope and contours, Iran’s nuclear quest will continue to take a heavy toll on ordinary Iranians, despite their baying for revenge for the attack on a nuclear scientist many now view as a martyr.