CDR (ret.) Eyal Pinko, Ph.D.
The operation behind the assassination of the Iranian nuclear program founder
Updated: Feb 11, 2021
On Friday morning, November 27, Muhsin Fakhrizadeh, considered the founder of Iran’s nuclear program, was assassinated.
As he makes his way in his Nissan vehicle, along with his bodyguards, to the resort town of Absurd in eastern Tehran, Fakhrizadeh encounters a well-planned ambush.
With a pile of trees on it, an old commercial vehicle was placed on the roadside of Fakhrizadeh’s path. The old commercial vehicle was probably purchased from its owner under a false identity.
Between the pile of trees was buried a powerful explosive, remotely controlled. The assassination crew, who was standing nearby and watching the approaching vehicle, detonated the explosive device, the pile of trees scattered across the road and blocked it.
At that time, the assassination team, which numbered five people, approached the vehicle and sprayed its occupants with bullets probably from automatic weapons. After verifying the killing, the assassination team members withdrew and disappeared in eastern Tehran’s rising morning air into the mountain roads.
After the occupants of the vehicle were evacuated by helicopter to the hospital, they were pronounced dead, including the death of Fakhrizadeh, one of the senior officers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps.
It is not the first-time assassination attempts were made to kill Fakhrizadeh, who survived a similar assassination attempt five years ago. Sixty years old Fakhrizadeh, who holds a doctorate in physics by his profession, was a key figure in the Iranian nuclear program and is considered one of its ancestors. Besides, Fakhrizadeh has been involved in other Iranian strategic plans, such as developing Iran’s air defense system and developing the missile upgrade program, known as Iran and Hezbollah’s missile precision project.
Fakhrizadeh’s name was also mentioned in the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) deliberations as raising questions about Iran’s true nuclear intentions and ambitions. The “Amad” program for the development of the Iranian nuclear warhead.
The motivation for the assassination operation
In the last decade, Israel’s name has been linked to a series of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists, which were assassinated as part of a large-scale counterterrorism program to disrupt and prevent Iran’s nuclear program, which sought to achieve the ability to produce several nuclear warheads.
The Iranian nuclear program has sought to achieve nuclear deterrence vis-à-vis the powers, especially the United States, to prevent their interference in its affairs, and to achieve a strategic balance vis-à-vis Israel, which, according to foreign publications, has its nuclear capabilities.
Furthermore, the Iranian nuclear program sought to enable Iran to achieve regional hegemony in the Middle East while strengthening its position in the region, the Islamic world, and the Iranian population.
The Iranian nuclear counter program began in 2009, during the Netanyahu and Barak government, in which a comprehensive strategy was formulated, most of which was led at the time by the head of the Mossad, the late Meir Dagan.
The strategy was based on three dimensions. The first dimension is a multi-frontal international political effort, the second dimension included a covert and targeted counter-effort against the ambitious Iranian plan, and the third dimension included the presentation of a concrete military option.
A counter effort is a series of intelligence and operational operations, covert or overt, designed to prevent or disrupt an adversary’s operations to reach military, intelligence, or technological capability and produce deterrence.
Such counter efforts were made against Hezbollah’s missile program, stopping the transfer of weapons to Hamas made by merchant ships, and by airstrikes of arms shipments in Sudan.
Counter efforts are integrative systemic efforts, including commando operations and special operations, cyber-attacks, the infiltration of hidden equipment into computer systems, and the assassination of individuals, activists, and leaders involved in a program the counter efforts trying to stop and disrupt.
In the Iranian nuclear context, covert counter efforts, according to foreign publications, focus on numerous joint operations by the United States and Israel, the “beheading of the serpent,” and the targeted assassination of senior scientists leading nuclear programs and ballistic missiles under the understanding that their assassination will shut down for relatively long time the development, production, and armament plans.
To carry out a targeted assassination operation, as was the case in the assassination operation of Fakhrizadeh, quality intelligence is required, which allows for an accurate and secret operation.
Such intelligence will first include information about the Iranian nuclear program, which consists of its personal, individuals in various positions, such as development, production, integration, logistics, and other duties.
Once the thwarting target has been selected, by its role and the decision that its thwarting will be a significant factor in delaying the nuclear program, the phase of gathering intimate intelligence about it begins.
At this point, intelligence will be gathered about the target’s life routine, workplace, lifestyle habits, hobbies and occupations, friends, family, children, and even other marital relationships.
Such intelligence will be collected over a long time, making it possible to build the patterns of his activity, the routine of his life, and to point out exceptional events, such as will make it possible to act against him.
Intelligence about the routine of life and the conduct of the target of thwarting will be carried out by a wide range of means, starting with agents close to him who knew how to provide details about his life and routine, through locating his location over time using his cell phone, and tapping to his phone calls and emails, through cyber-attacks on his computer, and performing careful follow-up actions.
All of these will be done carefully and in such a way that will leave no trace and indicate that it is a target for thwarting. Often, the counter target is a sensitive target, which is alert to the security threat to it, and will therefore make limited use of its media and communication means. In such an event, his family members or other relatives (whether from his place of work or among his friends) will become intelligence gathering targets.
Once a clear and high-quality intelligence picture has been produced, which will allow an understanding of the target’s life routine and planned events, a relevant operational plan to thwart him will create, including the timing of the attack, ways, and means of access and withdrawal from the attack.
The attack could be carried out by burying an explosive device in one of the places where the counter target is expected to stay or by an airstrike, as carried out in January 2020 against Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani by American unmanned aerial vehicles in Iraq. Targeted assassination can also be carried out either through a commando force that arrives in the area by helicopter or car or through a secret assassination unit, like the assassination of Fakhrizadeh.
The assassinations carried out more than a decade ago have been impressive successes and have significantly delayed Iran’s nuclear programs. But after that, Iran continued with its plans and managed to close, according to various estimates, the technology gaps for enriching the uranium it needed to build a first (and possibly one other) nuclear warheads and to produce ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
The recent assassination of Fakhrizadeh comes just a few weeks before the regime change in the United States, and the understanding that President-elect Joe Biden is expected to ease the nuclear sanctions imposed by Trump on the Iranian regime as part of his “maximum pressure” program. Throughout his tenure, Trump supported Iran’s restrictions, and its submission to the US dictates nuclear program and ballistic missile development plans.
After Iran violated its obligations to the US administration, including the restrictions on enriched uranium, which it is allowed to hold, during Trump’s administration, Israel was relatively at the political level of thwarting the Iranian nuclear program.
In the United States and Israel, as of this writing, there is a high level of silence, despite the tweets of President Trump quoting Israeli journalists, and Prime Minister Netanyahu, who said shortly after the assassination that “I did many things this week, not everything can be told.”
Senior Iranians, who were quick to accuse Israel of assassination, promised that Iran would not remain silent, and a painful Iranian response was expected. Fakhrizadeh’s senior status and key role in Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile development raises the likelihood of an Iranian response. As Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s military adviser, Hossein Dehghani, said, “In the last days of a provocative ally, Israel is striving to increase pressure on Iran to go to war. We will pursue the shahid’s killers and make them regret their actions.” Dehghani is one of the prominent candidates for Iran’s presidency in the elections that are expected to take place in the country next year.
Simultaneously, the change of the administration in the United States and the Iranian hope for the expected changes with the entry of Biden into office is a brake and a deterrent to the Iranian response. An Iranian response at this time may be against Israeli elements only and at low intensity. As a recall, Iran has previously stated that it will respond sharply to the United States for the assassination of Qasem Soleimani and has not yet implemented its threat in practice. It will now be a shaky deadline for it to react, at least until the Biden administration stabilizes.
For Israel, if it is the one behind the assassination operation, it is likely that the assassination operation will not significantly delay or halt Iran’s ballistic missile and nuclear developments. But it could create a deterrent to Israel taking all measures to prevent Iran from reaching nuclear capability, even when it is expected that the US political support for these efforts will decrease significantly during Biden’s administration.