Pictured: A billboard commemorating the assassinated Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in Tehran, Iran on November 30, 2020. (Photo by Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images)
To hit back, or not to hit back?
This is the question that has heated up debate within Tehran's ruling Khomeinist circles for almost a week. The debate was triggered by the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a shadowy figure in the top echelons of Tehran's murky establishment.
Despite an avalanche of obituaries and reports on the event, it is not yet quite clear who Fakhrizadeh was and what he was doing.
The official narrative started by introducing him as a military figure. He was, we were told, a brigadier-general and bore that title of Deputy Defense Minister. Then the Defense Minister, Brig. Gen. Amir Hatami spoke as if he hardly knew Fakhrizadeh while praising him for his unspecified "immense services". The narrative then switched to presenting Fakhrizadeh as a nuclear scientist and thus a victim of "enemies who do not wish to slow down Iran's progress in peaceful use of nuclear science."
In other words, Fakhrizadeh joins the lengthening list of Iranian nuclear scientists assassinated by unknown assailants over the past 10 years. But then Ali Akbar Salehi, the man who heads Iran's Atomic Energy Organization (IEAO) made it clear that Fakhrizadeh was working on a parallel project not connected with the mainstream nuclear program. More intriguingly, Salehi revealed that Fakhrizadeh's work was linked to "nuclear defense", thus having a military aspect. Then it was the turn of Maj. Gen. Hussein Salami, chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to add his layer of mystery by praising the "key role" that Fakhrizadeh played in the Islamic Republic's missile development project. But that was not all. The Islamic Foreign Ministry spokesman Khatibzadeh brought in a shade of his own by claiming that Fakhrizadeh had been a member of the Iranian team negotiating the infamous JCPOA (the Obama "nuke deal" with the then US Secretary of State John Kerry.)
Finally, and perhaps because they realized that the persona initially depicted for the "martyr" might not generate the desired degree of sympathy, the regime's propagandists started presenting Fakhrizadeh as a scholar, poet, philosopher, and moral guide. They even broadcast a videotaped speech in which he offers a comprehensive plan for defeating Covid-19 and curing those affected.
Whether or not Fakhrizadeh was a scholar, scientist, soldier, diplomat, philosopher, epidemiologist, and moral guide, in other words, a quintessential Renaissance man, we don't and perhaps can never know. But two things are clear.
First, that Fakhrizadeh was a member of the inner circle of "Supreme Guide" Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has created a parallel government structure that wields the reality of power while "elected" presidents and their ministers provide the façade behind which power is exercised. In a number of "special interest" domains, Khamenei relies almost exclusively on his handpicked and tested aides. Thus, when it comes to relations with Russia, for example, he relies on former Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Velayati. On relations with China, Khamenei has just put former Islamic Majlis Speaker Ali Ardeshir Larijani in charge. Relations with Arab neighbors and Afghanistan was handled by the late Gen. Qassem Soleimani. (Not clear whether Soleimani's successor Brig. Gen Esmail Qaani has also inherited that distinction.) Relations with Turkey and Pakistan seem to be handled by Maj. Gen. Muhammad Baqeri, Chief of Staff of the Islamic armed forces. Thus, it seems that while Salehi, and others before him, were in charge of the civilian aspect of the nuclear program, it was Fakhrizadeh who orchestrated the military part.
If that reading is correct, the second thing that becomes clear is that the Islamic Republic has always had a parallel military nuclear program, kept secret even from its own official government. Saleh says he didn't know much about what Fakhrizadeh was doing because what he did "could not be made public even in scientific papers."
This does not necessarily mean that the Islamic Republic has been building a bomb in secret. We have no means of verifying that. But it may indicate that the parallel project could have the limited aim of ensuring progress towards what nuclear scientists describe as "the threshold to breakout", a point at which a nation has all the scientific and industrial means of making the bomb but stops before making it.
This is like building a kitchen and providing all the ingredients needed to make a soup but not start the cooking until you want to give a dinner party.
Such a scenario may also dispel some mysteries surrounding the Islamic Republic's bizarre missile program. For example, why would anyone spend huge sums of money and effort to develop long-range missiles capable of carrying payloads of no more than 75 kilos of classical explosives that would do little harm to any target? However, the scheme could make sense if the payload in question comes in the form of a nuclear warhead. This is why Fakhrizadeh is presented as the man who had a crucial role in both the nuclear and the missiles projects.
Let us return to the question that started this piece. Tehran these days is full of voices calling for "revenge" and "punishment" of those responsible for Fakhrizadeh's martyrdom. The daily Kayhan, reputed to reflect Khamenei's views, is even calling for a full-scale attack on the Israeli port of Haifa, insisting that we should make sure that large numbers are killed. Other voices, especially from the "New York Boys" around President Hassan Rouhani, call for restraint so as not to jeopardize the hope of leading the Americans up the garden path through talks with a would-be President Joe Biden. In talks with President Barack Obama, Tehran was prepared to offer concessions on the civilian side of its nuclear project because the military side of it was never even raised. Nor did Obama pay any attention to Tehran's missile program.
We may be proved wrong, but our guess is that Tehran will do nothing to raise the degree of tension even by one notch -- something that could make it hard to sell the Americans another bill of goods.
Two facts may support that view.
First, the US is not presented as the main culprit in Fakhrizadeh's assassination, as it was when Soleimani was obliterated. Some fingers have even pointed at Israel, followed by promises of revenge. But even then, the rival version, based on the claim that the crime may have been the work of Iranian opposition groups, is kept in circulation along with another version that the operation did not involve boots on the ground but was carried out through remote control.
Secondly, Khamenei promised "hard revenge" for Soleimani's death but has vowed nothing but "prosecution and punishment" of perpetrators. His emphasis is on "the continuation" of Fakhrizadeh's work.
In other words, as long as our progress towards the "threshold" isn't halted, we can grin and bear Fakhrizadeh's martyrdom.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.