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Iran's Top Nuclear Scientist Assassinated Outside Of Capital City

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Iran's top nuclear scientist has been assassinated. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed today in a drive-by shooting outside Tehran. The West has long suspected him of leading Iran's secret nuclear weapons program, which was officially disbanded in the early 2000s. Iran's foreign minister has accused Israel of playing a role in the killing. NPR's Peter Kenyon is covering this story from Istanbul. Hi, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: First, tell us about the man who was assassinated. Who was he?

KENYON: Well, Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was a prominent physicist at a university in Tehran, also seen as an important figure in Iran's nuclear program. He was once described as the man who would be known as the father of the Iranian bomb if Tehran ever succeeded in creating a nuclear weapon. Israel in particular has called him the head of Iran's nuclear weapons efforts.

Fakhrizadeh has been targeted before, as several other Iranian nuclear scientists have. Four of them were killed about a decade ago in a series of shooting or bomb attacks. Those were blamed on Israel, which did not confirm or deny. Basically, we're waiting now for more information - still in the early stages in the story of this latest attack.

SHAPIRO: And what more can you tell us about how that attack played out?

KENYON: We know there was an attack on a car that Fakhrizadeh was traveling in in Absard. That's outside the capital, Tehran. State media showed images of a bullet-riddled car - also reported that Fakhrizadeh wasn't killed immediately in the shooting. He was taken to hospital. Doctors worked on him, but they couldn't save him. And they announced that he died later in hospital.

SHAPIRO: Now, as I mentioned, Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif referred to, quote, "serious indications of Israeli role" in a tweet this morning. What interest does Israel have here? And what are the Israelis saying now?

KENYON: Well, at the moment, Israel isn't saying anything about this killing. That was their policy in past attacks that Iran certainly blames on Israel. Israeli leaders have long accused Iran of plotting against the state of Israel. And the Israelis have long had a serious problem with Iran's attempts to gain a nuclear weapon. That raises alarm bells there in Israel. Tensions between those two countries have always been there. This will escalate those tensions dramatically yet again.

On the U.S. side, there's nothing yet from the State Department or the Pentagon in Washington, though a senior U.S. official did tell NPR that the killing has raised concerns of blowback, referring to possible danger to U.S. forces in the region, particularly in Iraq. American forces have faced attacks in the past there from Iranian-backed militias.

The early comments from Iranian military officials speak first and foremost of retaliation. Analysts say Tehran isn't eager to get into any kind of an all-out war with Israel. But there could be attacks on U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf or the wider region, could be attacks by some of Iran's proxy militias, either in Iraq or Hezbollah in Lebanon. None of that can be ruled out.

SHAPIRO: Tell us more about what this could mean for the U.S. - because, of course, we're just 50 days away from a new president taking office, and the Biden administration would like to revive the Iran nuclear deal that President Trump pulled out of. Could this complicate that effort?

KENYON: I'd say it does complicate it. It becomes a very real issue. There has always been - already been speculation about how difficult Joe Biden might find it to reengage Iran early in his presidency if that becomes a high priority for him. Reentering the 2015 nuclear deal is certainly one big issue there.

In general, there's the sense that the outgoing Trump administration would like to leave Biden with a very tense bilateral relationship with Iran to forestall any quick effort to reengage. So this is going to be one of many fronts where we'll just have to see how much progress Biden can make in undoing some of the Trump policies - which were, of course (laughter), efforts to undo Obama policies, and Biden was his vice president. So it's a bit complicated.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Thanks a lot.

KENYON: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.