Killing of Iranian Nuke Scientist is Straight Out of a Spy Novel

The targeted killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh has not been claimed by anyone, and probably will never be.

4 min read
Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

It's like something straight out of a spy story. A quiet and low profile head of a covert nuclear effort, killed at a fashionable resort, in a hail of bullets, despite his security cover. The targeted killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, head of the Iranian nuclear effort, has not been claimed by anyone, and probably will never be. But an "unnamed" Israeli official has since said that the world should be ‘grateful’ for the assassination, removing even any naïve doubts as to who was responsible.

It was a classic covert operation, which Iran and other countries may with justification call terrorism, but in sheer professionalism, it’s hard to beat. There will be many within Delhi’s own power and intelligence corridors who will sigh in envy.

Iran’s Nuclear Program: A Brief Background

Iran’s nuclear program actually began during the time of the Shah, and in fact, initially shut down by Ayatollah Khomeini. It was revived by the mid-1980s, with agreements with Pakistan and China. Pakistan supplied Iran with its first batch of centrifuges, and Fakhrizadeh was probably the one who negotiated the deal with Abdul Qadir Khan, head of the Pakistani proliferation network. He was then designated by the UN Security Council in 2007 for prohibited WMD activities.

In 2011, he set up the Organisation for Defence Innovation and Research, that according to the US, took over the plans of the undeclared nuclear weapons capability.

Iran denied it has anything other than an energy program, but after years of difficult negotiations, finally signed the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) in 2015, which its supporters say effectively capped its burgeoning capabilities, while its detractors said it allowed Iran to restart anytime.


Israel’s Covert Ops and Diplomacy

Israel was one of the latter who disbelieved that Iran would ever stop in its nuclear quest. From 2010 onwards, Israel has been blamed for seven such assassinations of nuclear scientists. Its operations increased after 2018 when US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA and levied the harshest sanctions yet on Teheran.

  • In January, there was the US drone strike against General Qasem Suleimani, head of the Al Quds force; certainly achieved with Israeli intelligence.
  • In May that year, Israel brazenly raided an Iranian facility, removing a reported 1,10,000 documents in one night.
  • In July 2020, an explosion targeted a centrifuge facility in Natanz, and by mid-year, it was involved in a far more complex exercise – that of uniting the Arab world more firmly against Iran.
  • A series of shuttered meetings led finally to September Peace agreements with UAE and Bahrain.
  • In late November, there were reports of a secret meeting between the Saudis and Israel. Nothing has come of it, yet; but the move is unprecedented.

Likely Objectives of the Assassination

In November, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran restarted uranium enrichment to about 4.5 percent from the 3.67 threshold allowed under the agreement. This was Teheran very publicly thumbing its nose at the US. But it remained cautious, with enrichment remaining far short of the 90 percent enrichment required for weapons purposes. But it was enough for Saudi Arabia’s King Salman to call for 'decisive action' against Iran, even as it became clear that a new US Presidency under Joe Biden would return to the JCPOA.

The assassination followed, in a clear calculation that Iran would retaliate, and jeopardise the situation beyond hope of recovery. In the final analysis, the killing of one nuclear scientist, who in his 60s was no longer operationally active, is hardly likely to set back the program. But it’s the intent that matters.

Active diplomacy and covert action have successfully put Iran between a rock and a hard place. Retaliation will kill any chances of the JCPOA and more vitally, the lifting of crippling sanctions. To not retaliate at a time when the neighbourhood is being ranged against it, makes it irrelevant. It's brilliant!

Against this, Delhi’s own covert operations seem poor indeed. Hafeez Saeed, chief of the Lashkar e Tayyba, and his several lieutenants continue to thrive, arriving in luxurious cars, attended by servile police. The training camps continue, as do the incursions into Kashmir, and terror attacks. True, we have blunted, like the Nagrota attempt, and probably others.


In the process, some 413 soldiers have been martyred ( 2014-2019) apart from civilians, including children killed in firing along the LoC. Worse, the “Kashmir’ issue is likely to be back in vogue, as Biden comes in. And most importantly, while Iran receives a ton of sanctions, Islamabad seems to have gotten away completely with its nuclear ambitions and its proliferation alike.

True, Pakistan is under unprecedented pressure from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), its utility to China seems to be waning somewhat, and its 22-year operations in Afghanistan have got it precisely nowhere. However, we can hardly lay claim to all the failures of Pakistan’s policies.

What is needed is a switch from a defensive to a full-fledged offensive. India need not follow the Israeli model. In fact, it's doubtful if it can. What we can do, is to widely publicise the continuing proliferation from Pakistan, evident from an extensive proliferation ring that emerged recently; go on the offensive on the bloody human rights issue in Balochistan, for both moral and strategic reasons, and most importantly, turn the ‘Kashmir issue’ towards the pathetic state in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, with its nonexistence of fundamental rights or even the internet.

While it's true that Israel’s covert operations arise from a ‘do or die’ strategy that arises from its geography, a large and noisy democracy can at least show that it can give as good, or better than it gets. True, a precisely targeted attack of a nasty terrorist or two would certainly relieve the prevailing gloom. But that not really necessary. Just drive up that narrative by several hundred notches.

(Dr Tara Kartha was Director, National Security Council Secretariat. She is now a Distinguished Fellow at IPCS. She tweets at @kartha_tara. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)

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