WASHINGTON — The assassination of the scientist who led Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon for the past two decades threatens to cripple President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s effort to revive the Iran nuclear deal before he can even begin his diplomacy with Tehran.
And that may well have been a main goal of the operation.
Intelligence officials say there is little doubt that Israel was behind the killing — it had all the hallmarks of a precisely-timed operation by Mossad, the country’s spy agency. And the Israelis have done nothing to dispel that view. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long identified Iran as an existential threat, and named the assassinated scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, as national enemy No. 1, capable of building a weapon that could threaten a country of eight million in a single blast.
But Mr. Netanyahu also has a second agenda.
“There must be no return to the previous nuclear agreement,” he declared shortly after it became clear that Mr. Biden — who has proposed exactly that — would be the next president.
Mr. Netanyahu believes a covert bomb program is continuing, until yesterday under Mr. Fakhrizadeh’s leadership, and would be unconstrained after 2030, when the nuclear accord’s restraints on Tehran’s ability to produce as much nuclear fuel as it wants expires. To critics of the deal, that is its fatal flaw.
“The reason for assassinating Fakhrizadeh wasn’t to impede Iran’s war potential, it was to impede diplomacy,” Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department nonproliferation official, wrote on Twitter on Friday.
It may have been both.
Whatever the mix of motives, Mr. Biden must pick up the pieces in just seven weeks. The question is whether the deal the president-elect has outlined — dropping the nuclear-related sanctions Mr. Trump has imposed over the past two years if Iran returns strictly to the nuclear limits in the 2015 accord — was shot to pieces along with Mr. Fakhrizadeh’s S.U.V. in the mountain town of Absard, east of Tehran.
The answer lies largely in how Iran reacts in the next few weeks. Three times since the start of the year, Iran has been on the receiving end of highly visible, highly damaging attacks.
First came the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the Iranian commander who ran the elite Quds force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, in a drone strike in Iraq, where the Trump administration said he was planning attacks on American forces.
Then, in early July came the mysterious explosion at a centrifuge research and development center at Natanz, a few hundred yards from the underground fuel-production center that the United States and Israel attacked more than a decade ago with a sophisticated cyberweapon.
And now the killing of Mr. Fakhrizadeh, a shadowy figure often described as the Iranian equivalent of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who oversaw the Manhattan Project more than 75 years ago in the race for the United States to develop the world’s first nuclear weapon.
The chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, described Mr. Fakhrizadeh’s killing as “a bitter and heavy blow to the country’s defense system” and said there would be “severe revenge.”
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