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Middle East Expert On Assassination Of One Of Iran's Top Nuclear Officials

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

An assassination in Iran has the Middle East on edge. The man thought to be the head of Iran's former nuclear program was killed today in a drive-by shooting outside Tehran. On paper, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was an academic, a professor who taught at a university in Tehran. But intelligence services for the U.S. and Israel have said for years that was a cover story for his real work on Iran's nuclear program. Iran's foreign minister says he believes Israel was involved in today's killing. There has been no comment from Israel or the U.S. We're joined now by Ariane Tabatabai. She is a Middle East expert with the German Marshall Fund, a nonpartisan public policy think tank. Welcome back to the program.

ARIANE TABATABAI: Thanks for having me again.

SHAPIRO: Let's start with the man himself. Tell us about Mohsen Fakhrizadeh's role in Iran's nuclear program.

TABATABAI: Sure, yeah. He was one of the key architects of Iran's nuclear program after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. And in particular, he was a key architect of what is known as the AMAD Project. That is the weapons-related part of Iran's nuclear program, which is believed to have stopped at some point in 2003, although elements of it did continue for a few years after that. So this is someone who was very closely associated with some of the more sensitive elements of Iran's nuclear program and who was very well-positioned within the Iranian system.

SHAPIRO: So this man has been described as the head of Iran's nuclear program. Does his death mean the end of that program?

TABATABAI: No. There are some reports coming out of Israel right now that some senior officials are saying, you know, it's going to be much more difficult for Iran to pursue a nuclear weapons program should they decide to do so now that Fakhrizadeh is dead. But, you know, a single man was not running the entirety of Iran's nuclear program. This has become a much larger endeavor. And, yes, he was an important player, but one of the more important parts of his role was to develop that infrastructure, to train others, to be able to continue the program. And so the implication is not going to be that Iran will stop its nuclear program altogether. In fact, I think one key implication could be that, given everything that has happened in 2020 between the United States and Israel and Iran, there's a lot of vulnerability that is exposed within Iran right now. So I wouldn't be surprised if you saw a bit more of a push within the system to go in the direction of a nuclear weapon.

SHAPIRO: Tell us more about what the implication for the U.S. might be because two weeks ago, President Trump was reportedly dissuaded from striking Iranian nuclear facilities. Joe Biden is going to become president in just about 50 days with hopes of reviving the Iran nuclear deal. What does this mean for the U.S. right now?

TABATABAI: Yeah, Ari, as you said, President-elect Biden has said that he would like to return to the nuclear deal. Of course, a lot of things can happen between now and 50 days from now that can make it more difficult for him to do so. Iran itself may want to target U.S. forces, U.S. personnel in the region. They may conduct cyberattacks. There's a number of things that they could do to make the Iran file that will be handed from the Trump administration to the Biden administration a lot more complex.

SHAPIRO: Do you think American officials are right to be concerned about potential retaliation against U.S. interests overseas?

TABATABAI: Absolutely. There is certainly a risk that Iran will decide to retaliate. And in some ways, I think the fact that they have come out and said that they attribute this attack to Israel is cause for concern because typically speaking, if Iran doesn't want to respond to an action or an attack, it does not come out and blame another party. They tend to kind of brush it under the rug. And the fact that they're not doing that right now, that they are pointing finger is slightly concerning to me.

SHAPIRO: 2020 has been a bruising year for Iran. I mean, it began with the death of Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian general whose death President Trump ordered early this year. Over the summer, there was an explosion at a nuclear facility and now this assassination. Where does this leave the country?

TABATABAI: I think what it does is that it actually highlights just how vulnerable Iran is currently. And this despite the regime pouring a lot of effort - or resources and effort into having a fairly robust security system. So, you know, if you're the regime right now, this is pretty embarrassing. And you not only have to face the international community but your own population and your own sort of domestic elite, as well, and really try to explain how it is that you're, you know, spending this much energy and effort into creating a robust security apparatus and that you end up being so vulnerable.

SHAPIRO: That's Ariane Tabatabai with the German Marshall Fund. Thank you for talking with us.

TABATABAI: Thanks for having me back. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.