Iranian scientist’s murder ends hope of détente with US
The killing of Iran's top nuclear scientist has virtually ended any hopes of reconciliation between Tehran and the incoming US administration as calls for retaliation grow louder.
Iran's parliament on Tuesday approved a bill which seeks to scale up nuclear activities in response to the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, which Tehran blames on Israel.
Fakhrizadeh was killed by unknown gunmen on the outskirts of the capital Tehran on Friday, becoming the fifth Iranian nuclear scientist to be assassinated since 2010.
The "Strategic Action to Lift Sanctions" adopted by parliament requires Iran to resume 20% enrichment and increase its stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU). It also calls for suspending the voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) three months after its ratification if the parties to the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers fail to honor their commitments.
The developments in the wake of Fakhrizadeh's killing have damped recent efforts made by the government of President Hassan Rouhani to open a new chapter of dialogue with the incoming US administration.
Rouhani had recently extended an olive branch to the Democrats after it was reported that the incoming Biden administration is considering a return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
The move by Iran's parliament follows a series of demonstrations across the country since Friday which called for a "strong response" to the top scientist's killing.
While the government has shown "strategic patience" and stressed that the response would be determined by Iran "at an appropriate time," top military officials have vowed "hard revenge."
The killing of Fakhrizadeh, who headed the Research and Innovation Organization at the Ministry of Defense and was a pioneer of nuclear technology, has derailed recent efforts towards reconciliation.
Although the Rouhani government has refrained from taking immediate action in response to the assassination, which experts term "strategic patience," pressure is building on it to give a strong response.
Fereydoun Abbasi, the head of parliament's energy commission and a former head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, has unequivocally called for an end to inspections by the UN's nuclear agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
As a response to Fakhrizadeh's killing, Abbasi said parliament will focus on four key issues, including resuming 20% uranium enrichment, halting the UN agency's inspections, ending cooperation with the agency and withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear accord.
Abbasi, who survived an assassination bid in 2010, said Iran will be cancelling the Additional Protocol in stages, which would pave the way for its exit from the NPT "if the sanctions are not lifted."
His remarks echo what Parliament Speaker Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf had previously asserted, asking the government not to "send weak signals."
Responding to these developments, IAEA chief Rafael Grossi said Monday that Iran has "nothing to gain" from a "decrease, limitation or interruption" of the UN agency's inspections.
Grossi, who managed to secure the agency's access to two Iranian nuclear sites in August, said Iran has "a very large nuclear program" that requires "one of the biggest efforts" in terms of inspections.
Responding to Grossi, Iran's UN ambassador Kazem Gharibabadi said the IAEA has an "immediate and primary responsibility" towards Iran, whose scientists are "exposed to assassinations" and nuclear sites are "targeted with sabotage."
He said the country has "accepted the highest level of the agency's inspections" and has the "most transparent nuclear program."
The Additional Protocol, which is generally based on mutual trust, requires countries to allow the UN nuclear agency to access nuclear sites and provide details about the nuclear activities.
During Grossi's recent visit to Tehran, the two sides had agreed to bolster their cooperation and enhance mutual trust to facilitate "full implementation of the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement and the Additional Protocol."
The positive developments combined with the victory of the Democrats in the US election had set the stage for the resumption of negotiations between Tehran and Washington.
Iran has increased its uranium enrichment activities in the last two years in reaction to the unilateral withdrawal of the US from the 2015 nuclear accord.
Fakhrizadeh's killing has also created a crisis for the Rouhani government at home amid speculation that information about the slain scientist could have been transmitted to the UN inspectors.
The bombshell was dropped by Abbasi, who led Iran's Atomic Energy Organization from February 2011 to August 2013. He said information about Fakhrizadeh "had been collected for years" and the UN inspectors could have played a role in it.
He said information collected by the agency during its inspections remains on its computer systems and is likely to be accessed by foreign intelligence networks, pointing to Israel.
His remarks were strongly rejected by government officials, including Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who said the "truth is a 180 degree perversion" of what was being said.
Zarif said Fakhrizadeh's name was given to the UN nuclear agency by the US and Israel in the mid-2000s and he was thereafter blacklisted under a UN Security Council resolution in 2007.
He implied that such reports were being circulated to "deceive" the people of Iran, as it has led to a strong backlash within the country.
Earlier, the spokesman of Iran's nuclear agency had also rejected reports of the slain scientist meeting with the UN inspectors.
Behrouz Kamalvandi said the UN agency's inspections inside Iran are "carried out within the framework of accepted legal principles," terming the reports "untrue".
Interestingly, the IAEA had long wanted to meet Fakhrizadeh as part of investigations into Iran's nuclear program, but access was reportedly denied.
A report by the agency in 2011 had identified him as a "key figure" in Iran's nuclear program. He was the only Iranian official mentioned in the report.
According to the head of Iran's National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, Fakhrizadeh had been on the radar of Israel's spy agency Mossad for at least 20 years and had survived assassination bids in the past.
On Monday, Iran's Intelligence Ministry claimed that the "new leads" in the case point to Israel's hand in the attack. Reports also claimed that the weapon used in the attack bears an Israeli imprint.
In 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu singled Fakhrizadeh out during a presentation on Iran's nuclear program, asking the audience to "remember this name."