Fakhrizadeh’s killing gave impetus to Iran’s nuclear program
Nuclear program gained momentum in year since top Iranian nuclear scientist’s killing
A black gravestone with “martyr” engraved on it is a popular attraction for visitors in one corner of the revered Imamzadeh Saleh shrine complex in north Tehran's upscale Tajrish neighborhood.
Exactly one year ago, Iran's top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was buried at the site, two days after he was shot and killed on the outskirts of Tehran by unknown assailants.
While Iran blamed Israel for the sophisticated operation, the second high-profile killing within the span of a year after top military commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani’s assassination in Baghdad on Jan. 3, 2020, Tel Aviv has refused to confirm or deny responsibility.
Fakhrizadeh, who headed the research and innovation wing at Iran's defense ministry, was a shadowy figure who deliberately maintained a low profile owing to a high threat level. He rarely made a public appearance and had only a few sketchy images available publicly.
Now, his life-size portraits greet visitors at the shrine complex in north Tehran where he lies next to another slain nuclear scientist, Majid Shahriari, who was killed Nov. 29, 2010. His 11th death anniversary is being observed Monday, two days after Fakhrizadeh.
At least five senior Iranian nuclear scientists have been killed in targeted attacks since 2010 -- Masoud Ali Mohammadi, Majid Shahriari, Darious Rezaeinejad, Mostafa Roshan and Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.
Fereydoon Abbas, another senior nuclear scientist who later went on to become the nuclear agency chief, escaped an assassination bid the day Shahriari was killed.
Fakhrizadeh's murder, however, marked a "watershed moment" as it pushed Iran to "adopt a more assertive posture" and announce "unprecedented measures" to accelerate its nuclear program, said Hadi GolMohammadi, a political and security observer.
"It was a moment of reckoning for Iran," he told Anadolu Agency. "Rouhani's reformist government, wary of escalation, chose ‘strategic patience’ but the conservative-dominated parliament decided to walk the talk by passing a bill dubbed strategic action plan to counter sanctions and protect rights of the people."
One year later
A year since Fakhrizadeh's assassination, Iran is enriching uranium at 60% purity, much beyond the 3.67% threshold stipulated under the 2015 nuclear deal. It has amassed 25 kilograms (55 pounds) of uranium enriched to 60% and over 210 kilograms (463 pounds) of 20% enriched uranium.
At the time of his killing last November, Iran was enriching uranium at 4.5%, slightly higher than the threshold. Three weeks after the murder, Iran informed the UN nuclear watchdog of its plan to scale up enrichment up to 20% purity.
In April, in response to sabotage at the Natanz nuclear facility, which Iran again blamed on Israel, the level of enrichment surged to 60% purity, which incidentally coincided with nuclear deal talks between Iran and world powers in Vienna.
Abolfazl Amouei, a senior lawmaker and member of parliament’s national security and foreign policy commission, said a year after Fakhrizadeh’s assassination and the passage of the parliamentary law, Iran has “regained much of its nuclear power,” which he noted was a “response to the continuing (US) sanctions and pressure on the Iranian people.”
“The assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh by the Zionist regime proved to Iran that despite the acceptance and implementation of restrictions on its nuclear program, hostilities with Iran have not reduced and our scientists are still the target of foreign malice,” he told Anadolu Agency.
The assassination of the top nuclear scientist, he asserted, “played a key role in accelerating the action of the Iranian parliament to pass a law to reduce nuclear restrictions,” while adding that Fakhrizadeh was “not directly involved in Iran's nuclear program” but “was engaged in various research activities, including in the field of bio-defense and nuclear defense.”
The newly-appointed head of Iran’s nuclear agency, Mohammad Eslami, recently told parliament that the Dec. 2020 law “will act as a base for future activities” of the agency, an indication that both the government and parliament are on the same page, unlike previously.
The law required the country to end the “voluntary” implementation of Additional Protocol to the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and limit access of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to nuclear sites.
The issue figured in a recent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report that noted a significant increase in Iran's stockpile of highly enriched uranium. It quoted the agency chief Rafael Grossi expressing "deep concern" about the presence of nuclear material at "three undisclosed locations."
Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a leading nuclear policy expert, said Iran’s actions are a direct reaction to what Americans and Israelis are doing, adding that the “trend would continue.”
“More sanctions, pressures, sabotage and assignations by Americans and Israelis have been responded by Iran with more escalation, expansion and increase in the level and capacity of its nuclear program,” he told Anadolu Agency.
Spying for Israel?
Fakhrizadeh was the last big name in Iran’s nuclear industry to be killed. But there has been a spate of killings of leading Iranian nuclear scientists over the years as well as sabotage at highly-fortified nuclear facilities, leading to speculation about Israeli infiltration in nuclear and security circles.
Mousavian said infiltration of Israeli and American spies is “one possibility” but IAEA’s inspectors “could also be spies to transfer information.”
“Past experiences prove that IAEA reports on Iran were always leaked to the media. If they could leak them to media, why can’t they leak them to foreign intelligence services,” he said.
Last June and again in December, the publication of confidential reports on Iran’s nuclear activities and IAEA’s nuclear inspections were denounced by Iran, vowing to legally pursue the matter.
Javad Heirannia, a foreign affairs analyst, believes the assassination of nuclear scientists “increased Iran's distrust in the IAEA,” adding that information is “still being leaked to Israel through the IAEA and its inspectors.”
He said killing Fakhrizadeh, who was singled out as a pioneer of Iran’s nuclear program by former Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu in 2018, and sabotage at key nuclear facilities are moves aimed at “pushing back Iran's nuclear program.”
“Of course, any act of sabotage will stop the nuclear program for a while, but if the aim was to destroy Iran's nuclear program, it has not succeeded so far,” he told Anadolu Agency.