ISTANBUL — Days after the assassination of top Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, competing camps in Iran are wielding his memory in a battle over the countrys political future and how it should deal with the United States.
President Hassan Rouhani’s reformist camp seems eager to claim him, seeking a postmortem endorsement for engagement with the West. In old photographs publicized Tuesday, Fakhrizadeh is seen receiving state honors from Rouhani for helping to secure the 2015 nuclear deal that Iran signed with the United States and other world powers.
The same day, however, previously unreleased audio was aired with the scientist purportedly questioning the utility of negotiations with the United States. “America can’t be compromised with,” Fakhrizadeh is heard to say, in a recording apparently made this year. It seemed like a reminder from Iranian hard-liners that Fakhrizadeh was really one of theirs.
The dueling messages underscore the intense debate that Fakhrizadeh’s death — in a brazen daylight ambush Friday east of the capital, Tehran — has stirred in his country, including over who was responsible for the security lapses implicated in the killing and its consequences. Most urgent is a dispute over how best Iran should respond — with restraint, fury or something in between.
Arguments over Fakhrizadeh are being wielded like cudgels by conservatives and reformists, squaring off in “the currently very contentious politics of Iran,” said Ali Reza Eshraghi, a visiting scholar at the Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina.
The outcome of these debates could have profound implications for the Biden administration, which hopes to renew nuclear negotiations after four years of President Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran.
Iran’s conservative-dominated parliament responded to the killing by passing a law Wednesday to immediately increase uranium enrichment to levels well above those allowed under the nuclear deal, and suspend United Nations nuclear inspections if oil and banking sanctions on Iran are not lifted by early February. These steps would probably complicate President-elect Biden’s ambitions to reengage with Iran.
Rouhani pushed back: “Let’s allow the ones who have more than 20 years of experience in diplomacy and have defeated the U.S. many times in the past three years to proceed with care and patience,” he said Thursday during a ceremony at the Ministry of Energy.
It remains unclear whether Iran’s leadership will carry out the law come the February deadline. Even so, Tehran is likely to seek greater concessions from the West in any renewed nuclear negotiations, using Fakhrizadeh’s assassination — a fresh grievance — as leverage, analysts said.
The killing — widely attributed to Israel and seen among Iranians as a flagrant national insult — could also have consequences for a public battered by a year of extraordinary hardships, including the most severe coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East and an economic crisis made worse by a suffocating regime of Western sanctions. In recent days, people have been bracing for further state repression of dissent, “with an excuse of having to be united against a foreign invasive power,” said Amir, a 30-year old university student studying philosophy in Tehran, who spoke on the condition that only his first name be used out of fear for his security.
Fakhrizadeh was a key figure in Iran’s disbanded nuclear weapons program and one of Iran’s best-guarded officials. The fatal ambush is widely seen as the latest in a string of grave lapses by Iran’s security and intelligence services, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The year began with a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad that killed a top IRGC commander, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, and days later Iranian security forces mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet, killing all 176 people aboard. In July, a fire broke out at a nuclear facility that Iranian authorities blamed on “sabotage.” Then in August, Israeli agents acting on behalf of the United States assassinated a senior al-Qaeda official in Tehran.
After Fakhrizadeh’s death, Iranian officials sought to deflect responsibility for security failures. “There is a kind of blame game going around between the government intelligence ministry and IRGC intelligence ministry,” two competing parts of Irans bifurcated political system, said Ellie Geranmayeh, deputy director of Middle East and North Africa programs at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
As news of the ambush spread, Iranian media outlets, based on eyewitnesses, reported that up to 12 perpetrators could have been involved and then escaped. By Monday, officials were pushing a new narrative seemingly intended to save face: The attack was “a very complicated assassination that was carried out remotely with electronic devices,” Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, told state television, Reuters reported.
The killing has “increased the heat from the more conservative end” of Iran’s political system on Rouhani, who represents a camp more open to nuclear negotiations with Western powers. “There is a lot of backlash currently in Iran about the need to retaliate, the need to ramp up the nuclear energy program,” said Narges Bajoghli, an Iran expert at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.