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Iranian American Historian On Assassination Of Iranian Nuclear Scientist

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Tehran, on a reporting trip earlier this year, my producer and I walked amid throngs of Iranians in the streets. Some were weeping. Some carried red flags with the words, hard revenge. Well, this was at the funeral procession for the first towering figure in Iran's national security establishment to be assassinated this year - Gen. Qassem Soleimani back in January. And I thought about those red flags, about the calls for revenge these last few days as news broke of another assassination, this time of Iran's top nuclear scientist and this time on Iranian soil in a mountain town outside Tehran. Iran has blamed Israel for the attack, an accusation a U.S. official told NPR appears to be true. Israel has neither confirm nor denied it. But to consider what revenge might look like, what the risks and opportunities are for Iran, we turn to Abbas Milani. He directs the Iranian studies program at Stanford.

Professor Milani, welcome.

ABBAS MILANI: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: Start with the question of whether revenge, whether retaliation for the death of this scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh - whether that is a given. Do you believe Iran has to do something?

MILANI: Iran, I think, has to do something because by their own rhetoric and their rhetoric of revenge, they have to make a response. But I think they also recognize - virtually everybody - that a response at this time might get them into a full confrontation with Israel, assisted maybe with Saudi Arabia, eventually, maybe even the United States. And I don't think they want that. So I think whatever revenge they will try to make, I think it will be later, and it will be more symbolic. They need to have peace at this time. They can't afford a war.

KELLY: Why? Why is this question of timing? Why would it be better to take revenge later rather than sooner?

MILANI: Because, I think, they know that one of the reasons for this hit at this time is to, in fact, get them maybe to a full confrontation with Israel and the United States. And that would make the possibility of the rapprochement with the Biden administration more difficult. And it isn't just because of Biden that the Iranian regime has to be careful. Russia and China, as well as Europe, have also cautioned Iran to not respond. So their hands are tied in multiple ways, making the idea of an immediate revenge much less likely.

KELLY: How is this playing in Iran, to the extent that you're able to track that from here? I remember after the Soleimani killing when I was there speaking to people, a lot of people, whether or not they agreed with and supported the regime, they felt their honor had been offended, that there was a sense of national pride that had been hit when Soleimani was killed. Is that same conversation playing out in Iran following Fakhrizadeh's death?

MILANI: Some in the regime are trying to play that card, but I don't think it's working because Soleimani was a different kind of a character. The regime had, in fact, for at least five years before he was killed, started a campaign to create of him this kind of a mythical national hero. The converse is the case here. They have been hiding this guy. There is one picture of him existing. Soleimani was everywhere, from kissing babies to the front, fighting ISIS. There was a picture of Soleimani on - every child that went to school, notebooks they bought, there were pictures of Soleimani, so the level of concern is much, much, much less.

KELLY: That is Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian studies program at Stanford University.

Thank you for your time.

MILANI: It was absolutely my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.