Part 6: Timeline and Fallout from a Scientist’s Assassination

The assassination of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on November 27 generated significant fallout in the wider Middle East and in the West. It heightened fears of retaliation and kinetic tensions in the region. The United States pulled back its diplomatic presence in Iraq. And the Iranian parliament passed a law requiring an escalation in production of enriched uranium, the fuel for a nuclear weapon and peaceful energy. The moves included: 

 

In Iran:

  • On December 1, Iran’s conservative-dominated parliament passed a bill demanding that the government immediately resume enriching uranium to 20 percent and to stockpile 120 kilograms of it annually. Iran had been enriching to about 4.5 percent, slightly more than the 3.67 percent limit set by the 2015 nuclear deal. Uranium must be enriched to 90 percent or above to fuel a weapon. The bill also called for restricting U.N. nuclear inspectors, if sanctions on Iran's banking and oil sectors were not lifted within a month. “Death to America! Death to Israel!” lawmakers chanted after the measure was passed.


    On December 2, President Hassan Rouhani said that he opposed the bill because it could harm diplomatic efforts to lift U.S. sanctions on Iran. “The government does not agree with that resolution and considers it detrimental to the process of diplomatic activities,” he said. But the Guardian Council - a panel of 12 Islamic jurists and scholars that approves or vetoes all laws by the parliament – passed a modified version of the law. The Council extended the deadline to lift oil and banking sanctions from one to two months. The resolution demanded that the government begin enriching uranium up to 20 percent immediately.
     
  • Iran vowed retaliation for Fakhrizadeh’s killing. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ruled out new diplomacy with the United States in a statement read by his representative at the scientist’s funeral on November 30. “Some say through dialogue and negotiations actions can be taken in order to put an end to such hostility,” he said. “This is not possible, because our enemies oppose the nature of the Islamic Republic establishment...They will never put an end to their hostilities toward us.”

 

By the United States:

  • On December 2, unnamed U.S. officials said that the State Department had decided to withdraw some staff from the embassy in Baghdad. One person said the temporary move was aimed at “de-risking” threats to personnel before January 3, the one-year anniversary of the U.S. killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the elite Qods Force. The drawdown was planned to continue after the anniversary.
     

By Major World Powers:

  • Many major powers around the world and in the Middle East denounced Fakhrizadeh’s assassination. The European Union labeled the killing a “criminal act” that violated respect for human rights. China called it a “violent crime,” while Russia called it a “terrorist act” and demanded that the perpetrators “be held accountable.” Britain, France and Germany – urged restraint from all parties to preserve the 2015 nuclear deal. Several of Iran’s neighbors – Bahrain, Iraq, Qatar, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates – condemned the murder.

 

Timeline

Nov. 27, 2020: Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a prominent nuclear scientist, was assassinated in a roadside attack about 40 miles east of Tehran. Details on the attack that killed him varied. Iran’s defense ministry initially reported that several gunmen opened fire on Fakhrizadeh’s car, but Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, later said that that “electronic equipment” triggered by remote control killed the scientist. 

In a letter to the United Nations, Majid Takht Ravanchi, Iran's U.N. ambassador, implicated Israel in the killing and warned against “against any adventuristic measures by the United States and Israel” during the last weeks of the Trump administration.

Nov. 28, 2020: Iranian officials pledged retaliation for Fakhrizadeh’s killing. “The Iranian nation reserves the right to give a crushing response based on a specific strategy to ensure national interests and dignity,” government spokesperson Ali Rabiei said.  

The European Union condemned the assassination as a “criminal act” that “runs counter to the principle of respect for human rights.” It also called for restraint to avoid an escalation in tensions in the Middle East.

Nov. 30, 2020: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ruled out new diplomacy with the United States in a statement read by his representative at Fakhrizadeh’s funeral in Tehran. “Some say through dialogue and negotiations actions can be taken in order to put an end to such hostility,” he said. “This is not possible, because our enemies oppose the nature of the Islamic Republic establishment. . . . They will never put an end to their hostilities toward us.”

Fakhrizadeh's casket
Fakhrizadeh's casket

Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s chief national security body, accused Israel and the Mujahadeen-e Khalq (MEK), a leftist opposition group in exile, of plotting the assassination together. “The [MEK] have been involved for sure, and the criminal element in this job is definitely the Zionist regime and Mossad,” Shamkhani told reporters at Fakhrizadeh’s funeral.

China and Russia condemned the killing and said the culprits needed to be held accountable. China’s foreign ministry said it opposed any act that aggravates regional tensions. “We are seriously worried by the provocative nature of this terrorist attack, which was obviously designed to destabilize the region and exacerbate its conflict potential,” the Russia foreign ministry said in a statement.

Dec. 1, 2020: Iran’s conservative-dominated parliament passed a bill demanding that the government immediately resume enriching uranium to 20 percent and to stockpile 120 kilograms of it annually. Iran had been enriching to about 4.5 percent, slightly more than the 3.67 percent limit set by the 2015 nuclear deal. Uranium must be enriched to 90 percent or above to fuel a weapon. The bill also called for barring U.N. nuclear inspectors, if sanctions on Iran's banking and oil sectors were not lifted within a month. “Death to America! Death to Israel!” lawmakers chanted after the measure was passed.

Dec. 2, 2020: President Hassan Rouhani said that he opposed the bill passed by lawmakers because it could harm diplomatic efforts to lift U.S. sanctions on Iran. “The government does not agree with that resolution and considers it detrimental to the process of diplomatic activities,” he said. But the Guardian Council - a panel of 12 Islamic jurists and scholars that approves or vetoes all laws by the parliament – passed a modified version of the law. The Council extended the deadline to lift oil and banking sanctions from one to two months. The resolution demanded that the government begin enriching uranium up to 20 percent immediately.

Unnamed U.S. officials said that the State Department had decided to withdraw some staff from the embassy in Baghdad. One person said the temporary move was aimed at “de-risking” threats to personnel before January 3, the one-year anniversary of the U.S. killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the elite Qods Force. The drawdown was planned to continue after the anniversary.

Dec. 8, 2020: Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, a senior adviser to the speaker of Iran’s parliament, said that some people involved in the assassination had been arrested. “The perpetrators of this assassination, some of whom have been identified and even arrested by the security services, will not escape justice,” he told state media. “Were the Zionists (Israel) able to do this alone and without the cooperation of, for example, the American (intelligence) service or another service? They certainly could not do that.”

More in this series:

 

Photo Credits: Fakhrizadeh's casket by Hamed Malekpour for Tasnim News Agency (CC BY 4.0)
Updated