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Iran's Top Nuclear Scientist Assassinated

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran's top nuclear scientist, was assassinated yesterday just outside of Tehran. Of course, this is not the first extrajudicial killing of a high-profile Iranian. In January, the country's top general was killed by U.S. airstrikes while on an official visit to Iraq.

This killing comes as the Trump administration, which has worked to ostracize Iran with travel bans, increasingly tough sanctions and, at times, military threats, is on its way out, and the incoming Biden administration hopes to repair U.S. relations with Iran, which insists its nuclear program is for energy, not weapons.

We're joined now by Karim Sadjadpour, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Karim, thanks so much for being with us.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Iran's president said today he promised, quote, "a definitive punishment" for those responsible. Do you believe this killing will oblige Iran to retaliate?

SADJADPOUR: Scott, Iran is in a tough position because on one hand, it's the most sanctioned nation in the world. Its economy has been heavily battered by the pandemic. And so there is a real impetus for them to return either fully or partially to the Iran nuclear deal with a Biden administration to get sanctions relief. At the same time, they do want to avenge the death of not only Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, but, as you mentioned, the killing of Qassem Soleimani in order to restore deterrence, restore national pride.

And it's going to be difficult to reconcile these two impulses because if they do, indeed, retaliate against Israel or the United States, it's going to be - it's going to make it more difficult to get that return to the nuclear deal.

SIMON: Well, and some people have raised the idea that maybe that's the point.

SADJADPOUR: Well, exactly. I think, you know, by all accounts, Israel is the most likely actor to have carried out this assassination against Fakhrizadeh. And Israeli leaders have long been concerned about the Iran nuclear deal and JCPOA. And if they were trying to sabotage a return to it, there was probably few things they could have done more effectively.

SIMON: We will, of course, note that Israel - and for that matter, the U.S. government, I believe - has made no comment. Remind us what Mohsen Fakhrizadeh's role was in Iran's nuclear program and what made him so conspicuous.

SADJADPOUR: Well, by most accounts, he's considered to be the father of Iran's modern nuclear program and that, you know, post-revolution in the 1990s, when Iran made the decision to have two parallel programs, both a civilian nuclear energy program but also a covert weapons program, Fakhrizadeh was leading the covert weapons program. And he was perceived to be the common node, kind of the common link among the very disparate elements it takes to make a nuclear weapon. And he had institutional memory - three decades of institutional memory, so he's not someone who is easily replaced. A former U.S. official told me that he was the closest person to being indispensable to Iran's nuclear program.

SIMON: And this, of course, raises a whole series of questions. But if the Biden administration wants to pursue returning to the nuclear deal, this complicates it considerably, doesn't it?

SADJADPOUR: It does. You know, I think, Scott, the reaction in Washington, including among incoming Biden administration officials, is likely mixed. You will have folks who are going to be in State Department jobs or the White House who see this assassination as badly complicating the possibility of U.S.-Iran diplomacy and a return to the nuclear deal. But I suspect there are also folks at the Pentagon and CIA that say, you know, a very key individual who represents a formidable adversary has been eliminated. And that makes their job easier rather than more difficult.

SIMON: We should remind ourselves Iran says that their program is for energy, not weapons, right?

SADJADPOUR: Yeah. Iran has obviously always said that the program is purely for civilian use. You know, the - in the past, they - their covert activities had been revealed. But by all accounts, it was Iran that was in compliance with the nuclear deal that was signed in 2015, and it was the Trump administration which pulled out of that deal. And that's why the Biden administration is eager to try to go back to it.

SIMON: And just in the few seconds we have left, this also has to be embarrassing for Iran not to be able to protect someone of this note.

SADJADPOUR: In 2020 alone, Scott, four major figures who have been under Iran's security umbrella have been assassinated - Qassem Soleimani, Fakhrizadeh, the No. 2 individual of al-Qaida and a key associate of Qassem Soleimani. So that is an embarrassment for what is really a police state in Iran.

SIMON: Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, thanks so much.

SADJADPOUR: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.