On Friday, Nov. 27, at 18:17 Iranian local time, the Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MDAFL) of the Islamic Republic of Iran issued a press release stating that Mohsen Fakhrizadeh had been assassinated. It confirmed that a car containing Fakhrizadeh had been attacked and that he was fatally wounded by gunfire.
Information on Fakhrizadeh is limited. His full name was Mohsen Fakhrizadeh Mahabadi, and he was born in 1957 or 1958 in the city of Qom. He was married and had three sons. He was a brigadier general of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and a professor of nuclear engineering, and linked with Imam Hossein University, which is run by the IRGC.
Fakhrizadeh is believed to have been the architect of the Islamic regime’s nuclear program, and his alias in governmental communications is assumed to have been Dr. Hassan Mohseni. He worked as a senior scientist at the MDAFL and previously headed the ministry’s Physics Research Center (PRC). Because of his vital role in Iran’s nuclear program, he was included in Foreign Policy’s 2013 list of the world’s 500 most powerful individuals. Because of Iran’s refusal to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to interview Fakhrizadeh with respect to his time as head of the PRC, the U.N. Security Council sanctioned him in Resolution 1747 (March 2007).
At the time of his killing, Fakhrizadeh was head of the Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research (SPND). The SPND, based in Tehran, is supervised by the MDAFL and is focused on nuclear weapons research. (As it happens, Fakhrizadeh’s assassination took place on the same day the trial began in Belgium of an Iranian diplomat, Assadollah Assadi, who stands accused of plotting to bomb an Iranian opposition rally in 2018.)
Fakhrizadeh was assassinated at approximately 2 p.m. local time in the city of Absard, 70 kilometers outside of Tehran. His is believed to be the fifth assassination of a scientist connected to the Iranian nuclear program. The full list is as follows: Majid Shahriari (Nov. 29, 2010); Dariush Rezaeinejad (July 23, 2011); Masoud Alimohammadi (Jan. 12, 2012); Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan (Jan. 11, 2012); and Fakhrizadeh (Nov. 27, 2020).
There is no doubt that these assassinations, other attacks on the Iranian nuclear program, the killing in Iraq in January of IRGC Quds Force chief Qassem Soleimani, and the recent slaying of Al-Qaeda’s No. 2 figure, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, in Tehran, collectively constitute a grave counterintelligence failure on Iran’s part.
The elimination of Fakhrizadeh was highly professional. The assassins had vital knowledge of both Fakhrizadeh’s security detail and route. How could this be?
There are three possible scenarios, and they are not mutually exclusive.
First, it could be that Iran’s counterintelligence organizations are weak, unstructured and amateurish, and are not able to take even the most basic precautions to secure their intelligence and protect important officials. Second, the regime’s technological capabilities may be so poor as to leave its sensitive databases and networks vulnerable, and third, the country’s intelligence community could be compromised. If this is the case, it means individuals inside Iran’s intelligence organizations are disclosing information directly to opponents of the Islamic regime.
Iranian reactions to the assassination
Soon after Fakhrizadeh’s killing, Iranian officials blamed the “Zionists” and, as is customary, threatened the enemies of the Islamic Republic. Maj. Gen. Muhammad Bagheri, the chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, stated that “severe revenge awaits the perpetrators of the assassination of martyr Fakhrizadeh.”
IRGC Commander-in-Chief Maj. Gen. Hassan Salami said, “The perpetrators will be severely punished,” while Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi wrote in a message that everything possible will be done to punish the offenders. Iranian Parliament Speaker Muhammad Bagher Ghalibaf, himself an IRGC commander, declared, “Today, the way of appeasement is closed” and called for revenge. Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi assured the Iranian people in a press release that the ministry “will avenge the blood of the dear martyr.”
The day after the killing, Brig. Gen. Esmail Ghaani, commander of the IRGC Quds Force, said in a written statement that he sympathized with Fakhrizadeh’s family and promised to “ally with all the forces defending the Islamic homeland in avenging the blood of this dear martyr and all the martyrs of the terrorists and their masters.” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a statement demanding that those who conducted and masterminded the killing must be “severely punished.”
Iranian newspapers had various reactions. Hardline and government-linked newspapers like Resalat and Iran, as well as centrist and pro-reform papers like Etemad, Ettelaat, Hamshahri and Shargh, all ran quite neutral headlines on their front pages. Three other papers ran more confrontational headlines. The IRGC-linked Vatan-e Emrooz (“Homeland Today”) had on its front page: “They will strike if we don’t.” The conservative Kayhan printed Khamenei’s statement on its front page calling for the severe punishment of those involved in the assassination. The English-language Tehran Times had a longer front-page headline stating that the incident bore Israeli footprints, with the backing of the “incoming U.S.” government.
How will the Islamic regime respond?
The elimination of Fakhrizadeh is a massive setback and an embarrassment for the Islamic Republic. As it has thus far failed to avenge the killing of Qassem Soleimani, there will now be renewed demands for retaliation. What, then, are the regime’s options?
Doing nothing is not an option, and the regime will have to act both at home and abroad. Domestically, the coming days or weeks could see the Intelligence Ministry arresting one or more individuals in connection with the killing. In accordance with the regime’s modus operandi, these people will be paraded on TV, admit working for Israeli intelligence and then be executed.
As far as options abroad are concerned, the regime has two choices: save face or go to war. Scenario one is more likely. However, to show that it has done something, the regime might conduct a limited operation in which missiles or mortar shells are fired at Israel by Iranian proxies. In this way, Tehran will show that it has retaliated and will thus save face. Behind the scenes, Iran will of course continue its malign activities against Israel and other countries deemed to be enemies of the Islamic Republic.
Scenario two would entail a serious Iranian attack along the lines of coordinated raids on Israeli embassies, the firing by Hezbollah of more powerful rockets at Israel, attacks on U.S. forces in the region, or the launching of missiles at the UAE and Saudi Arabia. These more extreme scenarios are highly unlikely, as they would put Tehran on the brink of all-out war—a result the regime does not want at present. While Iran probably will respond to the killing at some point in a more significant manner (as in the case of the attack on the Ayn Assad Airbase in Baghdad, which was a response to Soleimani’s killing), this will most likely take place after Joe Biden has been sworn in as U.S. president. Until then, Tehran may well show restraint.
There are already indications that Iran will not act too rashly. On the day of the killing, Brig. Gen. Hossein Dehghan, a prominent IRGC commander, presidential candidate for the 2021 elections and current military aide to Khamenei, wrote on Twitter: “In the last days of their gambling ally’s political life, the Zionists seek to intensify and increase pressure on Iran to wage a full-blown war.”
After quoting an Iranian proverb suggesting that patience is important and one should not rush into things, Dehghan concluded, “We will descend like lightning on the killers of this oppressed martyr and we will make them regret their actions!”
The day after the assassination, President Hassan Rouhani, in a meeting at the National Headquarters for Coronavirus Disease Management, mentioned the assassination of Fakhrizadeh and stated that “the relevant authorities will respond to this crime in a timely and appropriate manner.”
Ardavan Khoshnood, a non-resident Associate at the BESA Center, is a criminologist and political scientist with a degree in intelligence analysis. He is also an Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine at Lund University in Sweden.
This article was first published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.