This photo released by the semi-official Fars News Agency shows the scene where Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed in Absard, a small city just east of the capital, Tehran, Iran, Friday, Nov. 27, 2020.
( Fars News Agency via AP
Tanzina Vega: This is The Takeaway. I'm Tanzina Vega, and thanks for joining us on this post-Thanksgiving Monday. There's a lot of news to get to and we're going to start with a story out of the Middle East that could have significant implications for US foreign policy.
Speaker 2: Anger flares up following the killing of an Iranian nuclear scientist.
Speaker 3: Killed in a targeted attack that saw gunmen use explosives and machine gun fire.
Speaker 2: Iran's supreme leader is calling for definitive punishment.
Speaker 4: The Iranians are going to be in a position where they have to retaliate. I don't see any way around it, and that's not going to be good for anybody.
Tanzina: On Friday, Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed in a targeted attack reportedly carried out by a group of gunmen. Fakhrizadeh was one of the leaders of an Iranian military nuclear program that US intelligence agencies determined was disbanded in 2003. Iranian officials quickly blamed Israel for the attack. Israeli officials have not yet commented publicly on Fakhrizadeh's killing, but the country has been one of the leading critics of Iran's nuclear program. Iran has also accused Israel of carrying out a series of attacks on Iranian scientists from 2010 to 2012.
For the United States, however, the killing raises major questions when it comes to relations with Iran under President-elect Joe Biden. Biden has said that he would move to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal if Iran once again complies with its terms, but Iranian officials might lose their willingness to improve diplomatic relations with the US if tensions continue to rise during President Trump's final weeks in office. Joining me now is Farnaz Fassihi, a reporter who writes about Iran for The New York Times. Farnaz, welcome back to The Takeaway.
Farnaz Fassihi: Thank you for having me, Tanzina.
Tanzina: Israel has not officially commented yet on whether they were behind the killing, but how much evidence is there that they could be responsible?
Farnaz: Israel, usually when they carry out these covert operations, seldom do they publicly claim it. It's been their long-standing strategy. In our story in The New York Times, we did say that three intelligence sources have told us that Israel was behind the attack and they had planned it for a very long time. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was Iran's top nuclear scientist and sort of the brains behind the operation of its nuclear program. He was one of the prime targets for Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu mentioned his name in a presentation and said, "Remember this name."
It fits in the same pattern of covert operations that have happened this year in Iran. There was an attack on Natanz nuclear facility that intelligence sources believe Israel was behind. There was the assassination of Al Qaeda's number two in Tehran in August, and now this one.
Tanzina: Have we heard anything from US officials so far about the attack?
Farnaz: No, US officials are not commenting at all about this attack publicly and they haven't said anything. We know that because of the close alliance that Israel and the US have, if Israel carried out an operation like this, at the very least the US would know. They would be aware of it and would know that it was happening.
Farnaz: One of the things that's interesting here is that the US intelligence agencies said that the nuclear program that Fakhrizadeh led ended in 2003. What happened? What role has he played in Iran over the past decade.
Farnaz: In addition to being the top nuclear scientist, he was also the top adviser for the defense ministry and may have been involved in the development of Iran's missile programs. Iran says that for the past year since the pandemic hit, he had been also overseeing research at the Ministry of Defense's research facility for a coronavirus testing kit that was made in Iran and also an Iranian vaccine for the coronavirus. He had multiple roles and led multiple research programs for Iran's defense ministry. In response to why would Israel take him out if he wasn't directly linked to the nuclear program? Look, I think Israel had two goals here, Israel and the US.
It's to undermine or delay Iran's nuclear program because I don't think they can wipe it away with assassinations, there is a whole infrastructure for it. Also, really, to throw a big rock at a potential Biden and Iran diplomacy. Many of the sources that we speak to even inside Iran view this not just as an assassination attempt on Iran's nuclear program but an assassination attempt at diplomacy with the US.
Tanzina: Why would that be in Israel's interest? Please, remind us again.
Farnaz: Well, Israel has been against Iran's nuclear deal. They supported and praised President Trump's decision to exit the nuclear deal and to impose tough economic sanctions on Iran. They are very much of the view that US should continue the tough measures on Iran, the maximum pressure policy that the Trump administration has been enforcing. They are against any potential engagement with Iran that would give them some sanctions relief, or that would allow them to do business with the international world. We know that the Biden administration has said that it will look into returning to the deal, perhaps with some conditions, but that is on the agenda. Iran and Biden will have a different relationship that the Trump administration had with Iran, and there's chances of negotiations or talks and I think that this was meant to sabotage that effort.
Tanzina: Is that, Farnaz, potentially why this attack happened in the final weeks of President Trump's administration, as it winds down, as we transition to a Biden administration? Could that be part of the reason?
Farnaz: An attack like this probably took a while to plan and to execute, but we have seen, and I think the Trump administration has clearly both displayed and said that they plan to escalate the pressure on Iran as they're exiting. Almost every week, they announced sanctions and designate new Iranian entities and new Iranian officials on sanctions. These efforts, I think, in the last stretch, are definite, in the opinion of many Iran watchers and also Iranians in Iran, is kind of a last-minute effort to try to make it as difficult as possible for the Biden administration to engage Iran.
Tanzina: We know that Joe Biden is picking his cabinet as we speak. Are you seeing anyone in the cabinet who could potentially, in a national security position, who could tell us a little bit about Biden's administration's approach, potentially, to dealing with Iran.
Farnaz: The national security and foreign policy team from what we have seen so far are people with the view of global engagement and diplomacy over going unilateral, and particularly Jake Sullivan, who has been named the top national security adviser for Mr. Biden, was involved in the nuclear talks. He was the person that went to Oman to engage the Iranians before the talk started and laid out the framework and the grounds for the negotiations that went on. Antony Blinken has also been a supporter of the Iran nuclear deal, as well as many of Mr. Biden's appointed foreign policy team.
For the Iranians, this is a team that, unlike the unpredictable nature of the Trump foreign policy team, this is a team that they know, it's a team that they have talked to, have dealt with and it's just more predictability and stability for them in terms of going forward with Washington.
Tanzina: If this attack was carried out by the Israelis, as your reporting shows, Farnaz, could this also be not just an attempt to thwart diplomacy between the United States and Iran, but also an attempt to test support for Israel under a Biden administration?
Farnaz: That could be it. I think any US administration has a close alliance and a close relationship with Israel. That's whether it's a Republican or Democrat. The Trump administration for the administration of Netanyahu was particularly favorable, because not just of its policies on Iran, but also some of the policies that it took with Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the Golan, meaning the Golan Heights, moving the embassy. The Israelis, the new administration may not be as, how would I say, accommodating to Israel's policies even internally, but they will definitely have a close alliance.
Mr. Biden hasn't commented on the assassinations, but we've seen some senior democratic officials and people who were involved in the Obama administration foreign policy come out and condemn the assassination and say that this is not helpful.
Tanzina: I'm just curious, Iran has a presidential election of its own coming up in the next year. I'm wondering how that could affect relations between the US and Iran. If we know anything about who might be in the running for that position.
Farnaz: Iran's presidential elections is in June. That leaves the government of President Rouhani and foreign minister, Javad Zarif, which are viewed as a centrist government with a more pro-Western approach, only a four-month overlap with the Biden administration. For the Iranian government, time is of essence. If they want to start having any sort of engagement with the US, they want it to be quick and they want some sanctions relief quickly, not just for their own legacy, but they think that whatever happens with the Biden administration and the nuclear deal will impact and affect who is elected in Iran.
If some of the sanctions are lifted, if president-elect Biden returns to the deal, there's a chance that the next President of Iran will also be a more moderate centrist, but the assassination of the scientist this week has made the hardline voices in Iran that are against any interaction, any concession to the US much louder.
If this continues, if these sort of actions and provocations continue and if there's no return to the deal, we might see a Revolutionary Guards commander or a military person or a hardliner taking the presidency and that conservative hardline faction of Iran consolidating power. There's a lot at stake, both inside Iran domestically, and also, as you mentioned, with going forward between US and Iran.
Tanzina: Farnaz Fassihi is a reporter who writes about Iran for TheNew York Times. Farnaz, thanks so much.
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