Assassination of Top Iranian Scientist Strengthens Tehran’s Hardliners

Interview with Stephen Zunes, professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, conducted by Scott Harris

After Iran’s top nuclear scientist was assassinated on Nov. 27, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani accused Israel of carrying out the murder and vowed retaliation at a time of his nation’s choosing. According to Iranian state media, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a physicist and senior official in Iran’s nuclear program, was killed in an attack on his car about 40 miles east of the capital city of Tehran. The scientist had long been a top target of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service.

The assassination, occurring just weeks before President-Elect Joe Biden is sworn into office, is expected to complicate his pledge to repair relations with Iran and re-enter the 2015 international nuclear agreement that Donald Trump withdrew from in May 2018. The Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu strongly opposes Biden’s plan to re-engage with Iran. The threat of war has loomed over the two nations since last January when Trump ordered an airstrike that killed Iran’s top military commander Qassem Soleimani at Baghdad’s International Airport.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Stephen Zunes, professor of politics at the University of San Francisco. A specialist on U.S. Middle East policy, Zunes discusses the likely perpetrators of the assassination, their motive and the consequences for the incoming Biden administration’s stated goal of reducing tensions and improving relations with Tehran.

STEPHEN ZUNES: Certainly, the Israelis don’t want Iran to break their nuclear monopoly. Israel has had nuclear weapons for close to 50 years now. They want to remain the only country in the Middle East with that ultimate force. And so, they would certainly have that motivation. But also, the United States, CIA could conceivably be involved — Trump ordered the assassination of a top Iranian general, and it’s very possible that he wanted to get rid of (Mohsen) Fakhrizadeh as well. But you also have dissident groups like the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, which is a terrorist group that has been operating in Iran for many decades. They want to do anything they can to weaken the Islamic Republic. And it’s also a fact that the CIA, the Israeli Mossad and the Mujahideen have collaborated at times for various covert operations. So it could be one. It could be a combination of these three.

SCOTT HARRIS: There’s been a lot of speculation that this scientist was assassinated in part to make any kind of U.S. re-entry into the international Iran nuclear agreement that much more difficult. I wonder if you think that could have been part of the calculation that was made in planning and executing this assassination?

STEPHEN ZUNES: Yes. The timing was weird because President-Elect Biden has made clear that he is interested in re-entering the nuclear agreement that Iran had signed with the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, and ratified by the United Nations Security Council – back during the Obama administration — and in re-entering this, it would make it physically impossible for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon for their foreseeable future. And so why assassinate someone on the prospect that he might eventually work towards a nuclear weapon when you can do that through a binding agreement? That could indeed be a factor because the thing thing about Iran is that Iran, like the United States, you have moderates and hardliners. There are hardliners who were very much against the efforts to negotiate a nuclear agreement. The hardliners would say we can’t trust the United States by signing the nuclear agreement some years ago. They had to physically destroy billions of dollars’ worth of equipment, including a new nuclear reactor, centrifuges and other equipment in return for the promise of ending sanctions.

But the United States basically said, “Ha, ha, fooled you, you destroy these billions of dollars. We’re going to reimpose the sanctions anyway.” Even if Biden agrees to come back to the agreement on its original terms and lift the sanctions, there’ll be hardliners in the Iranian government who will say, “Hey, we don’t trust the United States to do this anymore. We’re not going to rejoin.” And so the assassination is yet another way of strengthening the hands of the hardliners, you know, saying, “This is how the other side plays. They will murder our scientists rather than simply go back to an agreement that was already disadvantageous for us.” You can see how it could really just, just make it very, very difficult for the nuclear agreement to come back into effect.

SCOTT HARRIS: There’s been pressure applied to the incoming Biden administration to renegotiate the Iran nuclear agreement, despite their stated goal of re-entering that agreement that was abrogated by Donald Trump. What in your view should Biden do in terms of those calls for him to put new issues into that agreement and Iran stated a case that they will not renegotiate anything in that agreement that was put to bed years ago.

STEPHEN ZUNES: When I met with the Iranian foreign minister in Tehran last year, he described how he and (then Secretary of State) John Kerry met no less than 50 times, going over everything line by line. I mean, the negotiations took seven years of posturing and three years of intense negotiation to hammer out every single detail. So the idea that the United States, after abrogating the agreement and causing billions of dollars of damage to the Iranian economy could suddenly say, “Oh, we demand more concessions of you” I really think that’s a non-starter. It’s going to be a struggle to get the Iranians to go back to the original agreement, much less one that has these additional demands.

For more information, visit Stephen Zunes’ website at


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