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A Trap? Why Assassination of Top Iranian Nuclear Scientist Could Tie Biden’s Hands in Future Talks

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Iran’s top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was assassinated Friday while driving on a highway outside Tehran. Iran accuses Israel of orchestrating the killing, which is the latest in a string of assassinations targeting scientists involved with Iran’s nuclear program. Between 2010 and 2012, four Iranian nuclear scientists were assassinated, and analysts say Fakhrizadeh’s death was designed to make it harder for President-elect Joe Biden to rejoin the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran when he takes office. Iran has long maintained its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. “Israel has always denied involvement, but it’s really the only country with both the motivation and the capability to conduct such attacks,” says Iranian American journalist Negar Mortazavi, host of “The Iran Podcast.” She says the assassination could be an attempt “to provoke Iran into a violent retaliation and basically pull Iran into a wider military conflict with the United States,” as well as to complicate future diplomacy between Iranian leaders and the Biden administration.

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AMY GOODMAN: Iran’s top nuclear scientist was assassinated while driving on a highway outside of Tehran on Friday. Iran accused Israel of orchestrating the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who reportedly led Iran’s nuclear program. A state funeral was held today in Tehran, where photographs of him were displayed next to Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani, who was assassinated by a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad 10 months ago. The Iranian defense minister, Amir Hatami, spoke at the funeral.

AMIR HATAMI: [translated] The enemy knows, and I as a soldier tell them, that no crime, no terror and no stupid act will remain unanswered by the Iranian people, and we will severely pursue the criminals. They must know that they will be punished for their actions. … The criminal United States has thousands of nuclear weapons, and the criminal Zionist regime has hundreds of nuclear weapons. What are these weapons for? Are these weapons for use as decor in your home?

AMY GOODMAN: Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has described the killing of the top nuclear scientist as an act of state terror. Conflicting details have emerged about how he died. Iranian state media initially said gunmen ambushed his car in the countryside. But now a top Iranian official says he was killed by an automatic remote-controlled machine gun placed inside an empty vehicle.

Israel has long been accused of targeting Iranian nuclear scientists. Between 2010 and 2012, four Iranian nuclear scientists were assassinated. Many analysts say Friday’s assassination was designed to make it harder for President-elect Joe Biden to rejoin the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, which President Trump withdrew from in 2018.

The assassination comes just weeks after Trump privately inquired if he could bomb Iran’s main nuclear site prior to leaving office. Iran has long maintained its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. Earlier this month, international inspectors reported Iran’s low-enriched uranium stockpile is growing again, but that the uranium is being enriched at a level suitable for nuclear power plants, not nuclear weapons.

We go now to Negar Mortazavi. She’s an Iranian American journalist and political analyst, host of The Iran Podcast.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! Can you start off, Negar, by talking about the significance of this assassination, what’s understood at this point, and then the fact that Iran is accusing Israel, and Israel has not commented?

NEGAR MORTAZAVI: Good morning, Amy. Sure. As you said, this is not the first nuclear scientist in Iran being assassinated. Israel has always denied involvement, but it’s really the only country with both the motivation and the capability to conduct such attacks.

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was a top person in the nuclear and defense infrastructure of Iran. He was well guarded. The country knew that he was a target. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli prime minister, had named him two years ago in a presentation. He said, “Remember this name: Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.” So the security services knew that he would be a potential target for the Israelis. He was well guarded.

And the fact that this operation was successfully launched — it was first said that it was an ambush. Now there’s talks of an automatic weapon. We’re still not sure how exactly it unfolded, but it was successful, and he’s dead now. It’s just a blow to Iran’s security system. And it’s also — I believe it’s a political move to first try to provoke Iran into a violent retaliation and basically pull Iran into a wider military conflict with the United States, and then also complicate future negotiations between Tehran and Washington when President-elect Biden enters office, which I think this will complicate those future negotiations.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about whether you believe the United States is involved with this, too? As I just pointed out, we did report earlier that President Trump had asked his top military officials if they could bomb Natanz, the nuclear site in Iran, before he leaves office. But what kind of complicity — do you feel there was complicity here?

NEGAR MORTAZAVI: Amy, it’s hard to say for sure, and we haven’t heard any confirmation from Israel or the United States, but it’s important to note that there has been some travel back and forth by Mike Pompeo to the region. He’s been meeting with the Israelis, with the Saudis, with the Emiratis. And this was the same pattern last year, right before the assassination of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani. There was also some traveling back and forth and meetings between Mike Pompeo and the Trump administration’s close allies in the Middle East.

We don’t know. I’m not sure if we’re ever going to know. But I wouldn’t rule it out that this was at least done with a green light and approval of the Trump administration by the Israelis. You know, the Trump administration, President Trump’s orbit, especially someone like Mike Pompeo — he’s been always looking for a military confrontation with Iran or a strike on Iran’s nuclear sites, and this is their final weeks in office. So I wouldn’t rule it out, if this came at least with a nod or approval from the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, talk about how Iran is responding inside, across the political spectrum, and those like Rouhani who recognize that as Trump comes to the end of his term and, at all levels, domestically and internationally, is trying to reinforce what he has done, whether we’re talking about withdrawal from the climate accord and try to prevent Joe Biden from rejoining, to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal. This is the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, speaking following the assassination.

PRESIDENT HASSAN ROUHANI: [translated] This brutal and cowardly terror attack showed that our enemies are experiencing weeks of anxiety, weeks when they feel their stress is being reduced and global conditions are changing. … The relevant authorities will respond to this crime in a timely and appropriate manner.

AMY GOODMAN: And I’d like to go back to 2018, when the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called out Fakhrizadeh as the director of Iran’s nuclear weapons project and urged people to, quote, “remember that name.”

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Iran devised a plan to do two things: first, to preserve the nuclear know-how from Project AMAD, and, second, to further develop its nuclear weapons-related capabilities. That plan came directly from Iran’s top leadership. … A key part of the plan was to form new organizations to continue the work. This is how Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, head of Project AMAD, put it. Remember that name: Fakhrizadeh.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response, Negar?

NEGAR MORTAZAVI: Well, let me first clarify that the nuclear — or, the weapons-related part of Iran’s program, the AMAD program, was stopped somewhere around 2003, year 2003. And this is — the U.N. watchdog, the IAEA, even U.S. State Department reports have confirmed that Iran no longer has a weapons-related program. So this is something that Benjamin Netanyahu alleges, but other international entities haven’t confirmed it.

But there is a national debate, basically, ongoing in Iran on one — I would say one main argument is that because Iran doesn’t retaliate, if Iran does not respond to such an assassination, to Israeli — basically target Israeli target, this type of assassination will continue with impunity, because we see how Israel has been carrying these out with a sort of impunity.

There’s another argument, sort of the opposite argument, more of the pro-diplomacy camp, that is recognizing that this might be a trap set by Netanyahu to basically prevent future diplomacy, to pull Iran into a military conflict, and that Iranians should be aware and not take the bait. And this is something I recognize in President Rouhani’s statements. We hear sort of the same line from Javad Zarif. And that camp, the pro-diplomacy camp, is more expecting condemnation from the international community. They haven’t been very happy from statements that came from the European Union. They weren’t very strong statements. They expect the international community to call this what it is — an assassination, terrorism — and to condemn it with strong condemnation.

So, that would give — if such condemnations continue to come from the international community, it would strengthen that argument that Iran shouldn’t act rash and retaliate in a way that Netanyahu has been trying to provoke Iran. But there’s also talks of harsh revenge, retaliation and, as the supreme leader also said, punishment for the perpetrators of this assassination.

AMY GOODMAN: And which side do you think will prevail within Iran?

NEGAR MORTAZAVI: I don’t think that the retaliation will be that provocative. The president has said it would be done in a timely manner, so it means that it could — you know, they could drag it. And if they do drag it, the only silver lining of this event could be that Iran can use this as leverage when the Biden administration comes in, to be like, “Look” — the pro-diplomacy camp can go to the table with Biden and say, “Look, we’ve dragged the hard-liners until now. We’ve stopped them. We’ve contained them. But you need to make this deal pretty fast, before, you know, time runs out.”

Because we’ve heard from the Biden camp also, people in Joe Biden’s orbit, that maybe the sanctions put on by the Trump administration should be used as leverage when negotiations with Iran happen and to delay a return to the nuclear deal, which I don’t think is a good idea. I think the Biden administration should prioritize a return to diplomacy, to the nuclear deal, and make it fast and clean, to then continue follow-on negotiations beyond the JCPOA.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the idea that the IMEU is putting forward, the Institute for Middle East Understanding? On December 27, 2008, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, a massive 22-day military assault on the Gaza Strip. The ferocity of the attack was unprecedented in the more than six-decade-old conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, killing some 1,400 Palestinians, most of them civilian. In the aftermath of the offensive, a U.N.-appointed fact-finding mission found strong evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by both the Israeli military and Palestinian militias. Investigations by human rights groups such as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch came to the same conclusion. This also a critical period where you had Barack Obama elected, but he was just about to take office, and a tremendous amount of attention was being paid to that, as in this lame-duck period in the United States.

NEGAR MORTAZAVI: I agree. I think there can be some similarities drawn and some comparisons made. The case between Iran and Israel is a little bit different, because we already have a deal in place with the United States. Under Barack Obama, when negotiations were still ongoing, when a deal was potentially to be made, Netanyahu tried everything possible to provoke Iran, to prevent negotiations. He even came here to Washington, made a speech at the U.S. Congress trying to prevent the nuclear negotiations from succeeding, and he failed.

But right now with the Biden administration, I think the strength of this administration’s policy in Iran would be that there is already a deal in place, and the Iranians are still abiding by it, to some extent, and there are other parties — it was a multilateral deal — who are still in the deal. So that makes it easier for the incoming administration to rejoin and to basically continue this diplomacy with Iran, and it makes it harder and more complicated for Israel to try to sabotage the return to the deal and future diplomacy.

But I think these are ways that Netanyahu has used in the past to try to provoke, to try to sabotage, and he will probably continue. I don’t think this will be the last one. There are still seven weeks 'til the end of the Trump presidency, and I wouldn't be surprised if we see other events coming up in the next seven weeks.

AMY GOODMAN: And we just have 30 seconds, but the effect of the massive set of sanctions that President Trump cumulatively has put in place at this point on the people of Iran?

NEGAR MORTAZAVI: The main and foremost pressure is on the Iranian people. The civil society is impacted, working classes, middle classes. The ordinary Iranians are the ones who are paying the price for this, the price for real-life necessities — food, medicine. Some life-saving medicine is rare to find, is scarce. So, the main pressure has been on the Iranian people. And any kind of military conflict will also have — the main casualties will be civilians. As we saw, when Iran tried to retaliate for the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, they turned around and shot a Ukrainian airliner over Iran. And any kind of retaliation or military conflict will eventually have — the casualty will be civilians in Iran or across the region.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, this all coming at the time of the pandemic. Negar Mortazavi, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Iranian American journalist and political analyst, host of The Iran Podcast.

Up next, death by firing squad, poison gas or electrocution? As the Trump administration races to carry out five more executions before Biden takes office, the Justice Department is trying to expand the number of ways it can kill prisoners. We’ll be joined by Sister Helen Prejean. Stay with us.

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