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What Happens Next? The Aftermath Of An Iranian Scientist's Assassination

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Now to Iran, where actions have consequences. Last week, a top nuclear scientist in Iran was assassinated. It's already prompted Iran's conservative Parliament to threaten to kick out nuclear inspectors in a couple of months. How will the scientist's killing affect Iran's nuclear program? NPR's Geoff Brumfiel explores.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: The scientist's name was Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. He was gunned down on a road outside of Tehran, according to Iranian press reports. He once led a covert program to research a nuclear weapon. But that ended years ago, says Ariane Tabatabai, an Iran expert with The German Marshall Fund.

ARIANE TABATABAI: According to the U.S. intelligence community's assessments over the past decade, Iran has not been engaging in weapons-related activities.

BRUMFIEL: In its current form, Iran's nuclear program is supposed to be peaceful, and Fakhrizadeh was not involved.

TABATABAI: He seems to not really have been playing a big role.

BRUMFIEL: But the killing could still change the course of the program. And here's how. In 2015, Iran reached a deal to dial back its nuclear effort in exchange for relief from economic sanctions. The deal required Iran to give up tons of enriched uranium, shut down key facilities and remove equipment, all under the watchful eye of international inspectors. Now, the goal was to keep Iran from getting the nuclear material it would need for a weapon should it ever decide to pursue one. With the deal in place, experts agree, Iran would have needed about one year to get enough enriched uranium together to build a bomb. Then along came President Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The fact is, this was a horrible, one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made.

BRUMFIEL: Trump withdrew the U.S. and blocked economic benefits going to Iran. Iran kept in the deal for a while, but slowly, it started reinstalling equipment and enriching more uranium. Today, it has roughly 12 times the amount of low-enriched uranium permitted under the deal. But Dina Esfandiary, a fellow at The Century Foundation, a think tank, says that Iran is purposely moving ahead slowly.

DINA ESFANDIARY: And to be fair, that's pretty consistent with the way that Iran has behaved with its nuclear program throughout its history. It's never moved fast. It's never made a dash for the bomb. It's always been about testing the waters, seeing what it can get away with, how far it can go.

BRUMFIEL: Esfandiary also says Iran is building back its program in a way that is easy to reverse, should the U.S. and other countries granted some of the benefits it was promised.

ESFANDIARY: The purpose of this is just to build a bargaining chip, leverage.

BRUMFIEL: The deal did work as designed, says David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, which closely tracks Iran's nuclear program. Iran was about a year from getting the material it would need for a weapon, should it go that route. But that was before Trump pulled out.

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Now we're looking at maybe as short as three months.

BRUMFIEL: That's much less than a year, but it's still not a crisis, Albright says.

ALBRIGHT: Panic usually sets in when it gets into the few weeks to a month, so we're not at a place of - anywhere close to a place of panic.

BRUMFIEL: President-elect Joe Biden still has some time to re-enter the deal, as he says he wants to, and to get Iran back on board. But Ariane Tabatabai worries that the killing of the scientist could push Iran in another direction. Conservatives in the country have proposed more drastic actions, like kicking out international inspectors overseeing the deal. And some question why Iran shouldn't build a nuclear weapon.

TABATABAI: There are individuals within Iran who say, listen, the economic cost is worth it because otherwise Iran will continue to be a target.

BRUMFIEL: Those voices, she worries, will gain strength with each strike against Iran's nuclear program.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOTTO AND JOSEPH RAY'S "NOVA - JOSEPH RAY REMIX") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.