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Iran Response To Scientist Killing Could Change Fate Of Nuclear Deal

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to turn now to ongoing reaction to the killing of a top Iranian nuclear scientist on Friday. The scientist was ambushed and shot to death in broad daylight while he was driving in Tehran. Yesterday, Iranian officials blamed Israel for the assassination and vowed revenge. And there is concern about rising tensions in the region just as President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office. We wanted to get Israel's perspective on all this, so we've called NPR's correspondent in Jerusalem, Daniel Estrin, and he's on the line now.

Daniel welcome. Thanks so much for talking to us once again.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Sure. Thank you.

MARTIN: So could you just remind us, who was the Iranian scientist who was killed on Friday?

ESTRIN: His name was Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, and he had been on Israel's radar. Two years ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel had stolen secret nuclear documents from Iran, and he named Fakhrizadeh as the head of Iran's nuclear weapons program called Project AMAD. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Remember that name, Fakhrizadeh? So here's his director right here. And he says, the general aim is to announce the closure of Project AMAD. But then he adds, special activities - you know what that is - special activities will be carried out under the title of scientific know-how developments. And in fact, this is exactly what Iran proceeded to do.

ESTRIN: So what Netanyahu is saying here is that Iran closed its nuclear weapons program, but Fakhrizadeh was secretly responsible for keeping up the know-how and making sure that someday in the future, Iran could develop nuclear weapons.

MARTIN: So Iran has publicly accused Israel of being behind this assassination. Has Israel made a direct or public response? And if not, what is the evidence that Israel's behind it?

ESTRIN: Israel officially has been silent. But it is similar to other killings of Iranian nuclear scientists between 2010 and 2012 that were attributed to Israel. A U.S. official told NPR it appeared to be an Israeli operation, and officials told The New York Times that Israel was behind it.

MARTIN: So if Israel was behind this, why would they do this now, just before President-elect Biden takes office?

ESTRIN: Yeah, the timing is key. A former chief of Israeli military intelligence spoke to journalists today about this, Amos Yadlin, and he thinks that if Israel is behind this, it could be hoping for Iranian retaliation. That could give Trump a pretext to attack Iranian nuclear facilities. And he thinks that this assassination will make a return to the Iran nuclear deal much more difficult.

And that is exactly what President-elect Joe Biden wants to do. He wants to return to an Iran nuclear deal if there is mutual compliance with Iran. And Netanyahu is opposed to that. And if Iran does retaliate, that kind of strike could make it hard for Biden to pursue diplomacy with Iran.

MARTIN: We mentioned rising tensions in the region. Could you talk about potential ripple effects that this might have beyond those three countries?

ESTRIN: Right. Well, it does depend if Iran decides to retaliate. Earlier this year, Iran did retaliate after the U.S. killed the military general Qassem Soleimani. Iran launched missiles on a U.S. airbase. But Iran could also decide to just sit on its hands and not escalate things and wait for Biden to enter office. Their hope is that Biden will provide them with sanctions relief if he pushes to return to a nuclear deal.

Some might say this actually scorches the earth and will make it harder for Biden to enter diplomacy with Iran. You could also see it the opposite way - that if Biden's ultimate goal is for a more stronger, broader nuclear agreement with Iran - that this just speeds that up, and Iran will have no illusions that it can go back to an old JCPOA if it continues with enrichment, that this will kind of push things forward and that Biden could have an opening.

MARTIN: That was NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem.

Daniel, thank you.

ESTRIN: Thank you, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAI LE'S "JEANS NO MOS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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