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Iran Vows To Retaliate For Killing Of Nuclear Scientist

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The killing of Iran's top nuclear scientist involved a group of highly trained assassins in what was a coordinated, brazen attack on Iranian soil. That scientist is being buried today. Iran is blaming Israel, and it says it will retaliate. But why did this happen now? And what does this mean for the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden? NPR's national security correspondent Greg Myre is following this story, and he joins us now. Good morning.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hi. Let's start with what this means for Iran.

MYRE: Well, it's a very big deal. The Iranian scientist we're talking about is Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. He was killed in an attack on his car outside the capital, Tehran. Now, Israel describes him as the head of Iran's secret efforts to develop a nuclear weapon. Many believe this program has been restricted or suspended for many years. But he's still a very important figure. And Iran has always denied wanting a bomb, and they downplayed his role. But Iran's defense minister said today that the country would continue his work with, quote, "more speed and power."

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, it is embarrassing and I imagine infuriating for this to have happened on Iran's soil. How are Iran's leaders reacting to the killing?

MYRE: Well, angrily. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei and others are calling for retaliation, and they're pointing to Israel. Iranian hard-liners say the country has suffered a number of attacks recently, and it hasn't really hit back very hard. But Iran is in a really tough position here. The economy is in very bad shape. It's suffering from the COVID pandemic. Prices for its oil exports are very low. It's burdened with very tough sanctions. If Iran lashes out, the sanctions are likely to remain in place, and the economy could get even worse.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Greg, what do we know? I mean, is it clear that Israel was responsible? And is it possible that the United States, its ally, might have been involved, too?

MYRE: Well, there are media reports coming out of Iran today with Iranian officials saying that the weapons used were linked to Israel and may have actually been fired remotely, not by - necessarily by people at the scene. Israel is not commenting. However, the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, called out this scientist, Fakhrizadeh, in a 2018 speech and said, remember this name. And Israel is universally believed to be behind these kinds of ambush killings of nuclear scientists in a period from 2010 to 2012. So did the U.S. play a role? Well, Iran is not blaming the U.S. at this point, and there's no information suggesting a U.S. role. But we should note that President Trump ordered an airstrike on an even more prominent Iranian figure, General Qassem Soleimani, back in January. He was killed on a trip to Iraq.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. President Trump, as we know, pulled out of a nuclear deal with Iran two years ago. And President-elect Joe Biden says he will be willing to reenter that deal. So whether or not the U.S. was involved, is the killing going to make diplomacy harder? Is it going to tie Biden's hands?

MYRE: Yes, it will absolutely make it more difficult. And there's speculation this was the point of the attack. Trump and Netanyahu both opposed the nuclear deal. They don't want to see it revived. Now, Biden is likely to maintain his same position when he enters office in January. We'll have to wait and see with Iran. They've been stockpiling low enriched uranium. They would have to give that up to go back to the deal. And a lot of hard-liners in Iran will oppose that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Greg Myre. Thank you so much.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.