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Iran’s top nuclear scientist reportedly killed in an attack

Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed Friday when a truck laden with explosives blew up near a car that was carrying him and gunmen shot and killed him, Iran's state media said. But who was this man and who may have killed him? Nick Schifrin spoke with Norman Roule, former national intelligence manager for Iran at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, to discuss.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Iran's most prominent scientist, the man described by U.S. and Israeli intelligence as the architect of that country's covert nuclear weapons program, was killed in an apparent assassination today.

    Nick Schifrin reports on who he was and why his death is so significant.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Amna, Iranian media reports that Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was driving east of the capital, Tehran, when a car bomb exploded near his car and gunmen shot and killed him.

    Analysts say he was the J. Robert Oppenheimer of Iran's nuclear program, its lead scientist, coordinator and manager. Western intelligence assessed the program was shelved in 2003. But, in 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unveiled a stolen archive of Iran's pre-2003 nuclear plans, and said Fakhrizadeh was responsible for continuing the program secretly.

  • Benjamin Netanyahu:

    A key part of the plan was to form new organizations to continue the work. This is how Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, head of Project Amad, put it. Remember that name, Fakhrizadeh.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Nobody has taken responsibility for his death, but, today, Iranian officials accused Israel.

    To discuss this, I'm joined by Norman Roule, who had a 34-year career at CIA, including as station chief in the Middle East, and was the national intelligence manager for Iran until September 2017.

    Norman Roule, welcome to "NewsHour."

    What's the significance to his killing and what is the impact on Iran's nuclear program?

  • Norman Roule:

    Good evening.

    The killing of the 59-year-old Iranian official removes from Iran its greatest institutional memory on its weaponization program. It will be very difficult for Iran to replace this, and it will actually impair their ability to reestablish a weaponization program, should they decide to do so.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    What's the message being sent by whoever killed him, and not only today, but the recent death of a top al-Qaida figure reported in Tehran and mysterious explosions throughout Iran, including at one of Iran's top nuclear facilities?

  • Norman Roule:

    These incidents, as well as the killing of IRGC Quds Force General Qasem Soleimani earlier this year messaged to Iran is that their most sensitive individuals, personnel and issues are not beyond the reach of Western security services.

    Ideally, it would tell Iranian officials that they should not undertake a covert nuclear program or terrorist activities or maintain a broader relationship with al-Qaida, because doing so would quickly come to the attention of Western institutions, intelligence organizations, and Western governments would take immediate action, which Iran cannot prevent.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Critics of these kinds of killings have an argument, that they don't stop Iran's nuclear program, in fact, they can create an incentive for iron to pursue a nuclear program, and that assassinations might create short-term successes, but can have long-term negative consequences.

    What do you think about those criticisms?

  • Norman Roule:

    I think it is questionable as to whether or not his assassination will encourage Iran to undertake a nuclear weaponization program.

    I think, in Tehran right now, anyone they might put in his place is probably wondering at what point he or she would fall under the focus of Western institutions who might undertake a similar assassination.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    President-elect Biden and his team say they want to reenter the Iran nuclear deal. What do you make of the timing of this attack, just 54 days before inauguration?

  • Norman Roule:

    A couple of points.

    First, an attack of this nature would have taken a lot of time to plan. So, this isn't something that would have initiated in the recent few weeks.

    At the same time, I think its sends a message to the Iranians that regional players will take security into their own hands if they believe the U.S. is unable or unwilling to do so.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And so, therefore, does this have an impact, do you believe, on president-elect Biden's plans to return to the Iran nuclear deal?

  • Norman Roule:

    For the Iranians, the primary impetus to return to a nuclear is their need for financial relief. Particularly, they need to bolster their reserves to maintain their currency and the health of their banking institutions.

    I think, for the Biden administration, looking at this deal, they're going to have to respect the security concerns of regional actors to a greater extent to avoid other incidents such as this upsetting nuclear negotiations.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You mentioned Iran's main goals. Given those goals, how likely is it that Iran responds in a major way?

  • Norman Roule:

    There is certainly going to be a heated discussion with Iran regarding response.

    There will be some who thought the response to the death of Qasem Soleimani was insufficient. And then, of course, you have had the reports of explosions, the death of a senior al-Qaida official, and now this.

    Iran will need to reestablish deterrence. Iran will need to show national pride has been protected. At the same time, they won't want to undertake an action that risks a conventional war or upsets the prospect of the financial relief that would come from a return to the nuclear deal.

    So, Iran is going to have to decide exactly what they do that walks a very fine line.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Norman Roule, thank you very much.

  • Norman Roule:

    My pleasure.

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