As Iran mulls retaliation for nuclear scientist’s death, a riddle remains. What exactly was he working on?

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Out in the nearby orchard, a thin layer of white covers a discarded glove and coats a broken tree branch — either caused by farmers, or the killers whom Iran says were Israeli, but about whom Israel hasn’t made any claims.

A local witness told CNN he heard a huge blast on the Friday of the attack, and then about 10 minutes of exchanges of gunfire — an account consistent with a bomb and ambush.

Iranian security officials continue to insist the plot was as hi-tech as its target — the man Israel and the US accuse of being the mastermind of Iran’s nuclear program. They told state media on Sunday that artificial intelligence and facial recognition were combined with satellite technology to control a remotely operated machine gun, which fatally shot Fakhrizadeh when he got out of his bulletproof car to investigate the initial noise of gunshots.
However, intelligence and security experts have cast doubt on the possibility that the assassination was remotely operated, with three experts telling CNN that despite the advantages, it introduces more risk factors into an operation with little apparent room for error.

The scientist’s son told state media that his father had been discouraged by his security detail from making the trip that morning along the quiet, verdant streets of Absard, a hilly retreat two hours’ drive outside of Tehran. “My father said he had a class, one he could not teach virtually, and an important meeting, so they could not persuade him to go back,” Hameed Fakhrizadeh told IRIB.

Yet as the explanations for this security lapse multiply, other questions are echoing louder in its wake. Does the assassination have any impact on the prospects for diplomacy in the region, and on what Iran’s critics say is its stalled quest for a nuclear weapon? Did the scientist’s death — after the killing of key military figure Qasem Soleimani in January by a US drone — mark another insult to Iran’s pride to which it cannot fail to retaliate?

The outgoing Trump administration thinks the answer to all of the questions are simple: no. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, an undying proponent of the White House’s “maximum pressure” strategy of sanctions and loud rhetoric, said Friday: “we know our campaign is working as the Iranians are desperately signalling their willingness to return to the negotiating table to get sanctions relief.”

Iran is far more ambiguous — its leaders are furious, but split between moderates and hawks on what to do next. Parliament set the clock ticking on diplomacy by passing a motion on Thursday that gave the US two months to lift some sanctions or face Iran enriching uranium up to about 20% purity by early next year — in the first weeks of President-elect Joe Biden’s administration.

Fakhrizadeh depicted with four other Iranian nuclear scientists -- from left: Majid Shahriari, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, Dariush Rezaei-Nejad, Massoud Ali Mohammadi -- who Tehran says have been assassinated previously.

President Hassan Rouhani opposed parliament, appealing to Iran to let those with 20 years’ experience in diplomacy with the US try to reignite negotiations. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei responded immediately to the assassination by demanding retaliation and that Fakhrizadeh’s work be continued.

The broader issue for Iran’s adversaries is exactly what that work was. The IAEA and US have said Fakhrizadeh was the repository of what nuclear bomb knowledge Iran had. Israel has gone further, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu exhorting his audience in an April 2018 speech to “remember that name.” It is unclear what he was engaged in at the time of his death, with Iran’s official position being that its nuclear research is still for technological advancement.

Professor Sayeed Mohammed Marandi, from the University of Tehran, said that if Iran sought a nuclear weapon, it was technologically advanced enough by now to have made one. “Its conventional military capabilities that are indigenous show Iran’s strength,” he said, raising another issue that dogs any future diplomacy.

Germany’s foreign minister Heiko Maas told Der Spiegel that any new deal with Iran will have to be “a kind of nuclear plus” agreement, a more precise version of Biden’s suggestion to CNN that a deal would have to address “the missile issues.”

Iran has made no secret that its conventional arsenal has advanced fast, while the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers has left its nuclear program dormant — until recently, when Tehran began to back away from the pact after Trump pulled out of it.

Iran's parliament passes bill threatening to boost uranium enrichment and suspend inspectors

Marandi said the only deal Iran would join again would be the old deal — that Iran had already negotiated once and did not need to start again. “The Iranians will not accept any additions to the [2015 deal] and they will not negotiate their defense capabilities, and they will not negotiate their alliances in the region,” he said, speaking for many of the ascendant, tougher voices in Iran.

Yet diplomacy is often preceded by bluster. The larger issue immediately is whether any retaliation for the deaths of Fakhrizadeh and Soleimani kills the prospect of talks before they even get off the ground. Retaliation for the death of Soleimani was limited to a strike on the US military base in Iraq, al-Asad, in which no US troops were killed. Iran’s hardliners feel retaliation is already overdue.

“If the Israeli regime feels it can, with the help of the United States”, said Marandi, “continue carrying out acts of terror, then Iranians will pay an unnecessary price. The only way to stop these acts of terror is for them to pay a price that makes it not worth pursuing more such acts.”

There are just over 40 days until Biden can begin to negotiate, and during which diplomacy’s adversaries can stop talks dead.



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