December 15, 2020

Iranian hardliners turn nuclear scientist’s assassination to their political advantage

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]

Principlist members of Iran’s regime may seize on the assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist to weaken moderate rivals in the latest round of political infighting. Likely Israeli operatives *assassinated top nuclear scientist and Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Brig. Gen. Mohsen Fakhri Zadeh just east of Tehran on November 27. Senior principlist officials have signaled that arrests related to the assassination are forthcoming. Principlist officials, notably Judiciary Chief and supreme leader–hopeful Ebrahim Raisi, have previously seized opportunities to weaken political allies by redirecting public discontent and even imprisoning rivals.

Regime leadership is *discussing Fakhri Zadeh’s assassination as a serious security failure. Iranian officials say that the perpetrator (likely Israel) executed a highly precise operation. The assassination in broad daylight came within a day of the 10th anniversary of the *likely Israeli assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Majid Shahriari, displaying temporal precision only possible with many different attack options, officials claim. Multiple Iranian officials *called for *identifying and punishing “infiltrators” and “mercenaries” weakening Iran’s security agencies. Iranian officials’ emphasis on infiltrations in the security apparatus suggests a growing level of paranoia at the highest echelons of Iranian leadership. It also raises the stakes of promised arrests, for which the charges may be treason instead of dereliction of duty.

The ostentatiousness of the assassination also likely embarrassed Iranian security forces charged with protecting Fakhri Zadeh, a deputy-level official in the Defense Ministry and a valued leader of Iran’s most sensitive pursuit.[1] Officials who could be even tangentially responsible for the failure to protect Fakhri Zadeh may preemptively try to deflect blame.

This assassination was the third or fourth likely Israeli operation inside Iran in recent months. Iranian officials have *accused Israel of sabotage that caused explosions at a missile facility near Tehran and the chief nuclear facility, Natanz, over the summer. Israel also killed senior al Qaeda leader Abu Muhamad al Masri on the streets of Tehran in August.

Moderate and more conservative elements of regime leadership are using Fakhri Zadeh’s killing as part of regime infighting. Expediency Discernment Council Secretary and former Commander of the IRGC Mohsen Rezaei, a notable hardliner, *wrote a public letter to President Hassan Rouhani, *blaming Rouhani, as the head of the Supreme National Security Council, for the security breach. Rezaei called for strong efforts to identify and neutralize infiltrators and collaborators that facilitated Fakhri Zadeh’s assassination.

Rezaei may be seeking to shield the IRGC, which also shared responsibility for Fakhri Zadeh’s protection. The IRGC's Ansar al Mehdi Protection Corps is *responsible for protecting high-level officials, such as Fakhri Zadeh, and *ultimately failed even more clearly than did the security organs Rouhani controls. The IRGC also maintains its own intelligence services that, presumably, similarly failed to detect, thwart, or warn about the planned assassination.

Principlists in the regime have previously attempted to co-opt policy failures to further a personal or ideological agenda. Former IRGC Commander and high-level conservative decision maker Mohammad Ali Jafari *claimed Iranians were justified to protest the formal government’s failures at the outset of the November 2019 protests likely to pin public discontent on the Rouhani administration. Hardline cleric Alam ol Hoda also used this approach in late 2017, attempting to galvanize protests against Rouhani. Both attempts at stoking public discontent for the Rouhani administration inadvertently sparked nationwide protests.

Raisi, supreme leader hopeful and son-in-law to Alam ol Hoda, has also personally *capitalized on public criticism of rampant government corruption, engineering a politicized purge of the judiciary since he took his position in March 2019. His targets have included Rouhani’s brother, who was sentenced to five years in prison.

Raisi may again politicize arrests under the guise of security breaches related to Fakhri Zadeh’s death. Raisi has urgently assumed a leadership role by *ordering all judicial bodies to pursue cases involved with Fakhri Zadeh’s death. Iranian intelligence and security organs clearly failed in a core and priority task. Any government would likely conduct investigations into the causes of such a failure to identify and fix the weaknesses that permitted it. But rushing to blame only the organization that reports to Rouhani and passing over the responsibilities of those the IRGC controls is one aspect of politicization. Rushing to open judicial cases before completing a professional investigation within the organizations that failed is another. Rezaei’s comments and Raisi’s actions strongly suggest that the regime is responding in a way optimized to score political points against Rouhani rather than to address the systemic problems that led to Fakhri Zadeh’s death.

Attacks on the Rouhani administration may strengthen security elements led by a hardline coalition with ties to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba Khamenei. Khamenei *ordered the IRGC Intelligence Organization in May 2019 to reorganize to have a more external focus. The IRGC Intelligence Organization has supported Raisi’s politicized arrests, conducting a highly publicized likely forced return of a Rouhani-affiliated businessman to Iran from abroad under Raisi’s anti-corruption mandate.

The IRGC Intelligence Organization is led by Hossein Taeb, who served in the same battalion as Mojtaba Khamenei during the Iran-Iraq war. The two formed their relationship sharing war experiences and likely remain close. Mojtaba, and indeed Taeb, will likely increasingly influence regime decision-making as Mojtaba assumes more responsibilities from his father whose health has reportedly declined in recent weeks.

[1] Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Minister Amir Hatami *referred to Fakhri Zadeh as a deputy defense minister and head of the ministry’s Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research. Israeli intelligence acquired documents that reportedly proved Fakhri Zadeh had headed a program called Project Amad to weaponize nuclear technology which had shut down officially to a degree in 2003.

View Citations