The attack alone was bold enough. A team of Israeli commandos with high-powered flares stormed into the vault of a heavily guarded warehouse deep in Iran and set off before dawn with 5,000 pages of top-secret papers on the country’s nuclear program.
A few weeks later, in April 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quoted the contents of the stolen documents on a television broadcast, shyly hinting at equally brave operations that were already planned.
“Do you remember that name,” he said when identifying scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh as the captain of Iran’s covert attempts to assemble a nuclear weapon.
Now Fakhrizadeh is the latest victim in an escalating campaign of bold covert attacks aimed at tormenting Iranian leaders with memories of their weakness. The operations confront Tehran with an agonizing decision to meet hardline demands for swift retaliation or to attempt a fresh start with the less relentlessly hostile government of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.
On a carefully awkward route to his in-laws’ house in a city outside Tehran, Mr. Fahrizadeh’s car was stopped on Friday by a car bomb in a Nissan that was so laden with explosives that a power line failed, according to Iranian news media and testimony. A group of armed men then jumped out of a black SUV, overpowered his bodyguards, and unleashed a barrage of shots before they raced away as Mr. Fakhrizadeh lay dying in the street.
The assassination of Mr. Fakhrizadeh was the last in a decade-long pattern of mysterious poisoning, car bombs, shootings, theft and sabotage that has ravaged the Islamic Republic. Most have met largely anonymous scientists or secret facilities believed to be related to their nuclear program, and almost all of them have been attributed by both American and Iranian officials to Tehran’s great enemy, Israel, whose officials are concerned about the repeated success of their program espionage was almost openly pleased without officially recognizing that Israeli agents were behind it.
However, never before has the Islamic Republic seen a spate of covert attacks like it did in 2020. In January, an American drone attack killed revered General Qassim Suleimani while he was sitting in a car leaving Baghdad airport (an attack facilitated by Israeli intelligence). Officials say). And Iran was humiliated by the fatal shooting of a senior al-Qaeda leader by an Israeli hit team on the streets of Tehran in August (this time at the behest of the United States, its officials said).
Rarely has a country demonstrated a similar ability to strike with impunity on the territory of its fiercest enemy, said Bruce Reidel, a researcher at the Brookings Institution and former Central Intelligence Agency official with experience in Israel.
“It’s unprecedented,” he said. “And there is no evidence that the Iranians are taking effective action against them.”
With the murder of the best nuclear scientists on Friday, Iranians are now grappling with a new sense of vulnerability, a call to get rid of suspected collaborators, and an excruciating debate over how to respond at a delicate moment.
Iran has seen four years of devastating economic sanctions under a “maximum pressure” campaign by President Trump, and many Iranian leaders are desperately hoping for some measure of relief from a Biden administration. The president-elect has pledged to revive an expired agreement that lifts sanctions against Iran to halt nuclear research that could produce a weapon.
For pragmatic Iranians, this desire for a fresh start means that Mr. Trump’s final months in office are no time for the country to fight back and risk another cycle of hostilities.
At the same time, some Iranians openly acknowledge that their enemies in the United States and Israel could use the present moment to further attack Tehran, squeezing their leaders between domestic demands for revenge and a pragmatic desire for better relations.
“From today until Trump leaves the White House is the most dangerous time for Iran,” wrote Mohammad-Hossein Khoshvaght, a former official with the Ministry of Culture and Leadership, in a message on Twitter.
Retaliation against Israel or Mr. Netanyahu’s main ally, the United States, would play into the hands of Iran’s enemies in the region who want to “create a difficult situation” so that Mr. Biden cannot revive this nuclear deal, Mr. Khoshvaght added.
Some hardliners argued that Mr. Fahrizadeh’s killing showed that Tehran should give up advocating a fresh start with Mr. Biden, if only because restraint encouraged its enemies.
“If you don’t respond to this level of terrorism, you may do it again because you now know Iran won’t respond,” Conservative political analyst Foad Izadi said in an interview from Tehran.
“Obviously there is a problem in seeing such things repeat themselves.”
The authorities underscored Mr. Fahrizadeh’s stature despite his previous anonymity in Iran and announced plans on Saturday to bury him in one of the country’s most sacred shrines of a national hero.
Videos were circulated of a senior clergyman who heads the judiciary and prays with the scientist’s family over his body, wrapped in an Iranian flag and exposed – an extraordinary and unexplained departure from Islamic tradition, the dead off their heads wrap up to toe in a white cloth.
For decades, Israel has pursued a strategy of targeted attacks to curb possible progress in the development of a nuclear weapon among its hostile neighbors. Israeli intelligence agencies have been linked to the murder of scientists working for Egypt in the 1960s and Iraq in the 1970s for the same reason, historians say.
Iran first accused Israel of killing one of its scientists when he dropped dead in its laboratory after being poisoned in 2007. A number of more violent attacks on Iranian scientists between 2010 and 2012 have also been largely attributed to Israel.
In one case, a bomb in a parked motorcycle blew up a particle physicist while he was lowering a garage door in his home in Tehran. In three other cases, motorcyclists raced past the moving cars of three other scientists and slammed magnetic bombs on their car doors, killing two and wounding a third. And in a fifth attack, armed men on motorcycles sprayed bullets on a scientist while his car was stopped at a traffic light and his wife was sitting next to him.
Israel has developed an extraordinarily successful track record against Iran by focusing the considerable resources of its espionage agencies mainly on its biggest nemesis, said Riedel of the Brookings Institution.
Israel has also carefully cultivated relations within Iran’s neighboring countries as “platforms” for surveillance and recruitment – particularly in Baku, Azerbaijan. The recent conflict with Armenia has drawn attention to drones and other weapons that Israel has provided to Azerbaijan as part of this relationship.
Israel has made it a practice to recruit native Farsi speakers from Iranian immigrants to Israel in order to establish contacts or analyze intercepted communications, and Israel has also managed to attract a number of Iranian collaborators.
Now, Riedel argued, the attack on Fakhrizadeh could be an indication that Israel intends to use this network again for similar missions. After an eight-year “hiatus” from the 2010 to 2012 murder wave, he said, “I think it’s a signal that the game is on or coming.”
On condition of anonymity to discuss covert operations, a senior Israeli official who had been involved in persecuting Mr. Fakhrizadeh for Israel for years said he would continue cracking down on Iran’s nuclear program if necessary. Iran’s nuclear weapons aspirations, sponsored by Fakhrizadeh, posed such a threat that the world should thank Israel, the official said.
In Iran, the murder has already sparked new calls to exterminate such spies, including from the country’s top leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In his first public response to the murder, Mr. Khamenei stated that the first priority is “to investigate this crime and definitively punish its perpetrators”.
Hardliners blamed the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani – a pragmatist who was heavily involved in negotiations with Washington – for the security flaws that made the attack possible.
“The night is long and we are awake,” said Hossein Dehghan, a recently announced candidate in next year’s presidential election who is Revolutionary Guard Commander in Chief and Defense Advisor to Mr Khamenei.
“We will fall on the heads of those responsible for the murder of this martyr like thunder and make them regret it,” he continued in a message on Twitter.
For his part, Mr. Rouhani suggested in a televised address that Iran pursue its policy of “strategic patience,” or what its critics refer to as waiting for Mr. Biden.
“We will reply at the right time,” said Rouhani. “All enemies should know that the great Iranian people are more courageous and honest not to respond to this crime.”
But within Iranian politics, analysts said, the hardliners benefited most politically from the attack. Any new conflict with Israel strengthens their arguments against negotiations with its allies in the West, said Sanam Vakil at Chatham House in London.
Since Mr Biden won the November elections, the hardliners have begun cracking down on Mr Rouhani in order to postpone any negotiations with the new American administration for as long as possible, Ms Vakil said, because the conflict with Washington strengthens their appeal and weakens more pragmatic ones Political groups in the Iranian elections next year.
“So an event like this is in the hands of the hardliners,” she said, “because they can postpone negotiations until after the Iranian elections – and that’s what they are striving for.”