Parsing Iranian Responses to the Killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi

2020 has proven to be a tough year for the Islamic Republic of Iran. It began with the killing of its most important general and terrorist mastermind, Qassem Soleimani, and now appears to be ending with the killing of a key military nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi. While the exact details of his death remain murky and Iran has offered competing accounts of events from that day, the outpouring of commentary after Fakhrizadeh’s death from Iranian politicians, military personnel, and media outlets matters greatly, as well as helps shed light on Tehran’s immediate political concerns, security imperatives, as well as prospects for retaliation and escalation.

Who Was Fakhrizadeh and Why Did He Matter?

According to Persian-language accounts, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was born in Qom (though some outlets say Tehran), Iran in 1957/1958 (1336 in the Persian calendar). Despite being known for his service of Iran’s nuclear pursuits, Fakhrizadeh got his start in the military arena, being an early member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) which was founded shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution as a parallel military institution to the country’s national military (called the Artesh). During the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, Fakhrizadeh served with the IRGC’s 17th Ali Ibn Abu Talib Division and partook in operations that reportedly included Operation Ramadan. Later in that same war, Fakhrizadeh worked with the father of Iran’s missile program, Hassan Tehrani-Moghadam, helping lay the foundation for Iran’s diverse ballistic missile arsenal. Reportedly, Fakhrizadeh attained the rank of Brigadier General, and as early as 1983 began working on nuclear matters for the IRGC under a special research entity called “Team-32.”

Fakhrizadeh’s participation in Operation Ramadan, as well as his presence in other battlefields is confirmed by none other than Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, the former head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization (AEOI), a war veteran, and the only Iranian nuclear scientist who survived an assassination attempt. According to an interview on Iranian television after the killing of Fakhrizadeh, Abbasi-Davani claimed to have known Fakhrizadeh for approximately 33 years. Since detailed information about the biography of Fakhrizadeh is scarce or hard to confirm, the details offered in Abbasi-Davani’s interview matter greatly, and are accordingly summarized below.

Fakhrizadeh’s professional and academic resume included a Bachelors Degree from Shahid Beheshti University, a teaching stint at Imam Hussein University, and service in (the now disbanded) IRGC Ministry starting in 1366 [1987/1988] where he worked for Abbasi-Davani until obtaining a Masters Degree from Isfahan University of Technology in nuclear physics. Fakhrizadeh then reportedly returned to engage in research and administrative work for another six years apparently following Abbasi-Davani to study, teach, and then continued in several research roles, including serving as the head of a group. After what is made by Abbasi-Davani to sound like a significant gap in time, Fakhrizadeh (with outside encouragement) attained a PhD studying under Abbasi-Davani (who also was his dissertation advisor). Abbasi-Davani further claims that Fakhrizadeh went on to hold one position for an estimated 20-odd years, deputy to various Iranian defense ministers by leading a Ministry of Defense (MODAFL) entity called the Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research (also known by its popular Persian-language acronym “SPND”). According to Abbasi-Davani, SPND is an entity engaged in “high-level defense research.”

The timeline offered by Abbasi-Davani about Fakhrizadeh’s time at SPND conflicts with what is known in the open-source community about SPND. Per the U.S. State Department in 2014, “SPND was established in February 2011 by the UN-sanctioned individual Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who for many years has managed activities useful in the development of a nuclear explosive device.” As such, 20-plus years of service by Fakhrizadeh would predate the founding of this entity. Moreover, almost all open-source accounts of Fakhrizadeh’s career indicates that his positions evolved over time to lead Iran’s weapons effort through service in what the State Department listed as the “AMAD Plan, the MODAFL subsidiary Section for Advanced Development Applications and Technologies (SADAT) and Malek Ashtar University of Technology (MUT).” The State Department further notes that, “SPND took over some of the activities related to Iran’s undeclared nuclear program that had previously been carried out by Iran’s Physics Research Center, the AMAD Plan, MUT, and SADAT.” The existence of an entity like SPND, up to and throughout the duration of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal known as the JCPOA, means that Iran has always wanted to keep its weapons-related options open, and that Fakhrizadeh was seen as the man for the job.

The conflation in timeline over SPND means that Washington and the international community are either wrong about the establishment date of SPND and that the entity was an umbrella organization all along for Iran’s covert weapons work, or, more likely, that Abbasi-Davani ignored the details of Fakhrizadeh’s career to avoid vindicating foreign government assessments about his colleague’s resume. Either way, the decades of service by Fakhrizadeh to what amounts to a slew of sanctioned entities involved in Iran’s nuclear weapons quest underscores both his and the regime’s commitment to this project.

As a reminder, Fakhrizadeh was listed in UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1747 from 2007 as head of the Physics Research Center (PHRC), an entity which he formerly led. PHRC was developed in 1989 to reportedly defend Iran from a potential nuclear attack and also to provide research support to MODAFL. Fakhrizadeh’s academic trajectory vindicates this function of the PHRC, since according to current AEOI director Ali-Akbar Salehi, Fakhrizadeh helped create the foundations for Iran’s “nuclear defense.” Fakhrizadeh is also twice (May 2008 and November 2011) mentioned in reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In 2008, the IAEA inquired from Iran about the purpose of Fakhrizadeh’s “visits abroad between 1998 and 2001.” In 2013, media outlets alleged that Fakhrizadeh had traveled to North Korea to witness a nuclear test.

The U.S. sanctioned Fakhrizadeh in 2008. His organization, SPND, was sanctioned by the U.S. in 2014, and in 2019, Washington broadened its counter-proliferation sanctions against entities working for or tied-to SPND.

Who is Saying What?

Iranian officials and media outlets have not kept quiet in the aftermath of the killing of Fakhrizadeh. Below is a list of select statements and headlines produced in Iran from late November to early December.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei:

  • “Two important issues must be put seriously on the agenda for stakeholders. The first is the following-up of this crime and the punishment of the perpetrators and those responsible for it, and the other is pursuing the scientific and technical endeavors of this martyr in all arenas where he was engaged.”

Armed Forces General Staff Chief Major General Mohammad Bagheri:

  • “Once again, the blind-hearted terrorists affiliated with the Global Arrogance and the Zionist regime brought one of the managers and servants of the scientific, research, and defense fields of the nation to martyrdom.”
  • “Terrorist groups and perpetrators and those responsible for this blind act should know that a severe revenge awaits them.”

IRGC Chief Brigadier General Hossein Salami:

  • “The blind-hearted enemies of the nation of Iran, and in particular the designers, perpetrators, and backers of this crime should know that these sorts of crimes will not create an obstacle to the determination and will of Iranians to continue along this glorious and authoritative path, and a severe punishment and revenge against them is [now] on the agenda.”

President Hassan Rouhani:

  • “Once again, the impure hands of the Global Arrogance with the mercenary[-like] usurping Zionist regime was tainted with the blood of the offspring of strong and brave offspring of this land, and plunged the nation of Iran into grief and sorrow for losing this hard-working scientist.”
  • “Undoubtedly, this terroristic and despicable incident is due to the helplessness and inability of the sworn enemies of the Iranian nation against the scientific movement and honors and capabilities of the great nation of Iran, and their successive defeats in the region and other political arenas, and the depths of their malice and resentment, like [their] other inhuman acts, has been revived in the minds of the world.”

Foreign Minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif:

  • Twitter (November 27): “Terrorists murdered an eminent Iranian scientist today. This cowardice—with serious indications of Israeli role—shows desperate warmongering of perpetrators” and “Iran calls on int’l community—and especially EU—to end their shameful double standards & condemn this act of state terror.”
  • Twitter (November 28): “Terror attack on our scientist was indubitably designed & planned by a terrorist regime & executed by criminal accomplices. Shameful that some refuse to stand against terrorism and hide behind calls for restraint. Impunity emboldens a terrorist regime with aggression in its DNA.”

AEOI Spokesperson Behrouz Kamalvandi:

  • “The agents involved in the Natanz incident are the same as what happened to martyr Fakhrizadeh, and it appears that the Zionist regime is involved in these cases.”

Editor-in-Chief of Kayhan (hardline newspaper) Hossein Shariatmadari:

  • “The Supreme Leader of the Revolution has on several occasions emphasized the necessity of preventative action with the enemy and imposing a heavy cost against the crimes of the enemy. Using this formula has been effective such that America and its allies are terrified of revenge against Iran.”
  • “Today, all the attention of the people and the system must be concentrated on two axes, one; a severe and regrettable revenge against the criminal Zionists, and two; exposing domestic agents and the possibility of enemy influence.”

Hardline Newspapers (with photos):

Kayhan Headline (front-page above the fold, November 28):

  • “An eye for an eye, the Zionists should be waiting.”

Kayhan Headline ((front-page above the fold, December 1):

  • “Military commanders have emphasized the day of punishment is not far.”

Vatan-e Emrooz Headline (front-page above the fold, November 28):

  • “[If] we don’t strike, they will strike.”

Vatan-e Emrooz Headline (front-page above the fold, December 1):

  • “[I] Swear by revenge.”

Reformist Newspapers (with photos):

Etemaad Headline (front-page, above the fold, November 29):

  • “The day after the incident.”

Etemaad Headline (front-page, above the fold, December 2):

  • “One of the hundreds of untolds about the JCPOA.”

Mardom Salari Headline (front-page, above the fold, November 29):

  • “Footsteps of the joint-madness of Netanyahu and Trump in the terror at Absard.”

Aftab-e Yazd Headline (front-page, above the fold, November 29):

  • “Iran’s international litigation.”

Making Sense of Tehran’s Next Steps

Religious Rebranding

The Islamic Republic and its media apparatus has not wasted any time casting Fakhrizadeh as another nuclear “martyr,” a tradition that began with the commemoration of previous Iranian nuclear scientists who were also killed. The rationale behind providing them with this epithet is two-fold. First, to sanctify their career, thus making their life’s work (and ultimately, death) in the service of the regime on par with service to Iran’s official religion (Twelver Shiite Islam). Second, once sanctified, to have the life and legacy of these individuals become a domestic propaganda tool to both rally the nation and prevent any doubt or deviation from Iran’s current course of action. These efforts are reinforced by an Iranian media landscape which has termed Iran’s nuclear “martyrs” as “the real flagbearers of Iran and Iranians’ excellence in the region and the world.”

The Domestic Media War

The posthumous publicity surrounding Fakhrizadeh continues to grow in the Iranian media space. Analysts have noted there are more images of Fakhrizadeh making their way online now than ever before. Almost immediately, this led to his name and legacy being invoked to adjudicate domestic factional disputes. This is despite, of course, the injunctions by select Iranian elites to prevent the factionalization of Fakhrizadeh’s legacy. Broadly speaking, hardliners are taking the opportunity to grow their criticism of the government of President Hassan Rouhani and his programs (inclusive of the JCPOA). Conversely, the pro-Rouhani camp coupled with what is left of Iran’s ailing reformist faction are using the opportunity in what can be interpreted as an attempt to raise questions over the efficacy (within the limited bounds of Iran’s authoritarian system) of the regime’s security services while turning Fakhrizadeh into a proponent of their programs. This battle of narratives is likely to continue in the short-to-medium term.

For example, while former reformist Vice-President Mohammad-Ali Abtahi declared on his Instagram page that “Israel is the direct agent of these crimes,” he also hinted with concern at the operational reach of Fakhrizadeh’s assumed assassins, noting “Israel has pitched its tent in a bad way inside Iran. Numerous events in the past years indicate this calamity.” Moreover, Abtahi appears to have offered a veiled critique of Iran’s security services and the operational freedom of foreign regime opponents on Iranian soil. “Find the real and influential spies of Israel,” he charged.

Days later, the pro-government Iran newspaper, which is owned by the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), posted photos from a hitherto seen portion of an award ceremony related to the JCPOA in early 2016. On the sidelines of that ceremony in a private room and away from global attention, Rouhani awarded Fakhrizadeh the Order of Service medal, second-class, for helping attain the JCPOA. He was reportedly the first scientist to receive this award from an Iranian president. By releasing photos from that ceremony, pro-Rouhani elements attempted to weaponize Fakhrizadeh as a pro-JCPOA personality. This is something which could benefit Rouhani as he attempts to deflect blame against his government and its main foreign policy achievement, the JCPOA, in a year when nearly every setback including the killing of Soleimani is cited by ultra-hardliners as either the result of the JCPOA or negotiations with the U.S.

For their part, ultra-hardline elements are contesting the legacy of Fakhrizadeh and are hoping to ascribe him to their causes. Shortly after the IRNA photos of Rouhani and Fakhrizadeh appeared, a state-run TV broadcaster aired comments allegedly by Fakhrizadeh wherein he denigrated the idea of negotiations with the U.S., saying specifically, “American cannot be compromised [with]… compromise with this [America] has no meaning.” The broadcaster has also claimed that Fakhrizadeh’s “voice is the most important record.”

Ultra-hardline elements are also using the killing of Fakhrizadeh to make the case for a more a more aggressive response and direct exit from the JCPOA through large-scale violations. Such a policy, at least on the nuclear front, contrasts with Rouhani’s existing policy of incremental violations since mid-2019, a policy which nonetheless at the time of this writing has led to the accumulation of more than 12 times the permitted amount of low-enriched uranium (LEU) on Iranian soil.

Nowhere is this desire for confrontation better heard than in the statements of Iranian parliamentarians. As a reminder, the Iranian parliament, which held its latest elections this past February, is dominated by hardliners. Abdolkarim Jamiri, a hardline parliamentarian, used the current political climate to denigrate the idea of nuclear diplomacy with a potential Joe Biden administration in 2021 by claiming that the killing of Fakhrizadeh “shreds” the “dream” of renewed negotiations. Similar anti-engagement sentiments were espoused by the likes of Elyas Naderan, who alleged that information about Fakhrizadeh was passed along to IAEA, which in turn he alleges made its way to Israeli sources and enabled Fakhrizadeh’s assassination. Other hardline voices, such as Ali Khezrian, disparaged the notion of “strategic patience” being floated as an option in the face assassination and sabotage. Khezrian and others critical of this approach fear that those who may want to lay-low during the last few months of the presidency of Donald Trump risk giving a “green light” to more pressure and attacks.

Creating Facts on the Ground at Home

One consequence of the hardline media war are the facts that it may well soon create on the ground, facts that add leverage to the Iranian side of the ledger through greater nuclear violations in scale and scope. To that end, the Guardian Council has approved an amended bill from the Iranian parliament that was introduced just after the killing of Fakhrizadeh to kick out IAEA inspectors. The bill also contains other measures like timed requirements for the Rouhani government to cease its adherence to the Additional Protocol (a supplementary safeguards agreement which Iran voluntarily agreed to implement under the JCPOA), as well as requirements to grow its uranium stockpile to include enrichment of uranium to 20% purity (a level last seen in 2010-2013).

While the Iranian parliament doesn’t make nuclear policy and there have been several high-level deliberations about this matter in years past, the latest bill, which is now with the executive branch for implementation and enforcement, contains a trigger should Iran not receive major sanctions relief within a reported two months. While the Rouhani government has opposed the bill, select administration members like Foreign Minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif appear to understand the leverage this provides to potentially scare Washington back into the JCPOA by weaponizing a “Good-Cop, Bad-Cop” approach. Lest we forget, Zarif has previously wielded the claim that his faction is under domestic pressure from hardliners in an attempt to gain foreign concessions.

Another consequence, and one which has evaded much media attention, is the proposed increase to the budget of SPND, a move that is both symbolic and practical. Symbolic, since it shows that Iran will not be deterred from carrying out activities that were previously under the guidance or purview of Fakhrizadeh, and practical, as it may attempt to use the infusion of cash to supplement the loss of Fakhrizadeh. According to press reports about the expected increases in Iran’s defense budget (emblematic of a larger series of budget deliberations in Iran currently), SPND’s budget will reportedly increase from 40 billion tomans to 245 billion tomans. One toman, the unofficial currency measure in Iran, is treated as 10 Iranian Rials (IRR). Converting those sums to U.S. dollar (USD) values using the current official exchange rate (estimated between or just over 41,000 – 42,000 IRR to 1 USD, rather than the unofficial or “free market rate”) is the equivalent of moving from approximately 9.5 million USD to approximately 58.3 million USD. If appropriated, this would be over a six-fold increase in just a one-year period.

Escalation Abroad?

In addition to the nuclear escalation at home, Tehran is likely entertaining several options for retaliation abroad. Given Iran’s past track record and current capabilities, this author assesses those options to fall within four broad categories, each of which are explained below:

Terrorism. Considered Tehran’s tried and true method of retaliation, terrorism offers the regime the potential to disguise it’s hand (and thus manage the prospects for escalation) while still striking at its adversaries. Tehran’s ability to use its IRGC and/or IRGC Quds-Force (IRGC-QF), regional proxies (like Lebanese Hezbollah) as well as disaffected persons across a wide-swath of geography for purposes of state-sponsored terror is well known. What’s more, terrorism remains a key component of Iranian security policy because it is relatively low-cost, occurs away from Iranian soil, and puts the burden of proof on the recipient of the attack. Interestingly, Tehran appears to have relied on terrorism to respond to past killings of its nuclear scientists. From 2007 (the date of the first killing of an Iranian nuclear scientist on Iranian soil) to 2012 (the last killing before Fakhrizadeh), there were six reported terror attacks, five of which were lethal. Those five attacks killed: Ardeshir Hosseinpour (2007, although later it was alleged that the IRGC killed him), Masoud Ali-Mohammadi (2010), Majid Shahriari (2010), Dariush Rezaie-Nejad (2011) and Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan (2012). Starting in 2012, Iran commenced a policy of responding to threats, with, according to Supreme Leader Khamenei, “our own threats to impose at the right time.” While that statement was used to frame Iranian retaliation to growing U.S. and EU sanctions, it also appears to have touched-off a transnational terror campaign aimed at Israeli citizens and diplomats across four countries: Georgia, India, Thailand, and Bulgaria (which killed six Israeli tourists). Given this history, as well as Tehran’s continued interest in terrorist operations, terrorism remains Tehran’s most likely course of action to respond to the killing of Fakhrizadeh.

Indirect proxy escalation (regional). Rather than enlist a group to directly support an Iranian terror plot, Tehran could recast its retaliation by offering its proxies a longer-leash to respond kinetically in areas they are already operationally engaged. One challenge with this approach however relates to the synchronization of targets and the ability for its adversary to detect the signal of resolve by an Iranian proxy. Say for example, an Iran-aligned group like the Houthi rebels in Yemen use this opportunity to strike at Saudi Arabia – as some analysts believe is already the case – whereas Iran is blaming Israel for killing Fakhrizadeh. Not only would it be challenging for Iran’s adversary (Israel) to discern the new driver of escalation (namely, determining if escalation by the Houthis in this instance is more a product of political signaling than existing battlefield conditions), but the adversary would have to interpret the escalation in a different geography as a show of force related to itself. The potential for confusion makes this a less than ideal option for Tehran, but a comparatively safer choice than terrorism. As such, it is a possible but not probable retaliatory option for Tehran. An amended (and riskier) version of the strategy of indirect proxy retaliation could instead involve authorizing a proxy to strike at Israel directly (and perhaps covertly with an IRGC backstop). This could come from the array of pro-Iran Shiite militias in Iraq, or perhaps even Syria, which shares a border with Israel. Should one such militia strike at the Israeli homeland using weapons systems likely supplied by Iran, as happened in years past, this would touch-off larger Israeli retaliation, again putting the ball in Tehran’s court. Yet the ability to signal resolve by striking at the Israeli homeland but not jeopardizing retribution against the Iranian homeland makes this a possible option for Tehran.

Cyber attacks on critical infrastructure. Iran and the Jewish state are already engaged in a heated cyber contest, with attacks on each other’s critical infrastructure being reported in the news for over a year. While Iran is certainly no tier-one cyber power like Russia or China, it has been growing its cyber capabilities alongside a willingness to take more risks in response to the U.S. maximum pressure campaign. A cyber attack on a piece of critical infrastructure in Israel, if successful, may land a punch for the regime, but it may not provide a sufficient spectacle to respond in kind to the targeted killing of its chief military nuclear scientist. As such, if employed, cyber attacks are likely to serve as a complementary vector for pressure, rather than a stand-alone operation. What’s more, given Israel’s cyber advantage over Iran, an Iranian attack may invite reciprocal or greater response than Tehran may be able to handle or thwart.

Overt kinetic action from Iran. Building on the parallel to Soleimani, a hardline Iranian foreign policy analyst penned an op-ed in the pages of Kayhan newspaper just days after the killing of Fakhrizadeh calling for a direct attack on Haifa, Israel. His rationale was that Iran’s response should be no less than that which it leveled against U.S. bases in Iraq for killing Soleimani. As a reminder, Iran overtly launched 16 short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) from its territory in that retaliatory strike, which while not taking any lives, led to over 100 traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) for U.S. forces in the area. Experts believe that Haifa was likely chosen/mentioned for its large population and presence of chemical/petrochemical facilities. Haifa is also home to gardens and a shrine honoring a faith Iran’s religious leaders believe to be a heresy. Interestingly, Khamenei, Iran’s most important national security decision-maker, has thus far avoided the term “severe revenge” in his response to the killing of Fakhrizadeh. This is likely an attempt to downplay any potential response Iran may offer while not wanting to back the sort of escalation which could cost Tehran sanctions relief under a Joe Biden administration. Besides cognizance of Iran’s limited conventional capabilities, the taboos of overtly and directly launching a missile from Iranian territory at the Israeli homeland, the inability to best Israel in an escalation spiral thus far, Khamenei (and others) have come to watch in real time that unlike America in Iraq, Israel has not at all been willing to accept or absorb Iranian escalation, be it in neighboring Syria or elsewhere. This understanding is likely the most significant impediment to an overt strike, and feeds into larger Iranian calculations about the crippling costs (material and reputational) the regime would incur and can ill afford. Therefore, overt kinetic action ranks as a low-probability but high-impact option, but one that Tehran benefits from keeping alive in the press.

The comparisons between Soleimani and Fakhrizadeh that have filled the Iranian media space (for instance: terming Fakhrizadeh “the Soleimani of the defense industry,” or various paintings showing Fakhrizadeh embraced by Soleimani in the after-life) are certain to drive comparisons between the response to the killing of Soleimani to the response to the killing of Fakhrizadeh. Only time will tell what that response will look like, but a survey of Iranian commentary indicates one thing: it is coming.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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