TEHRAN, Iran — An opinion piece published by a hard-line Iranian newspaper on Sunday suggested Iran should attack the Israeli port city of Haifa if Israel carried out the killing of the scientist who founded the Islamic Republic’s military nuclear program in the early 2000s.
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Though the hard-line Kayhan newspaper has long argued for aggressive retaliation for operations targeting Iran, Sunday’s opinion piece went further, suggesting any assault be carried out in a way that destroys facilities and “also causes heavy human casualties.”
Israel, suspected of killing Iranian nuclear scientists over the past decade, has not commented on the brazen slaying of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. A military-style ambush Friday on the outskirts of Tehran reportedly saw a truck bomb explode and gunmen open fire on the scientist, killing him and a bodyguard.
U.S. intelligence agencies and U.N. nuclear inspectors have said the organized military nuclear program that Fakhrizadeh oversaw was disbanded in 2003, but Israeli suspicion of Tehran’s atomic program and his involvement has never ceased.
Iranian officials have blamed Israel for Friday’s attack, raising the specter of renewed tensions that could engulf the region, including U.S. troops stationed in the Persian Gulf and beyond during President Donald Trump’s remaining weeks in office.
Kayhan published the piece written by Iranian analyst Sadollah Zarei, who argued Iran’s previous responses to suspected Israeli airstrikes that killed Revolutionary Guard forces in Syria did not go far enough to deter Israel. He said an assault on Haifa also needed to be greater than Iran’s ballistic missile attack against American troops in Iraq following the U.S. drone strike in Baghdad that killed a top Iranian general in January.
Striking the Israeli city of Haifa and killing a large number of people “will definitely lead to deterrence, because the United States and the Israeli regime and its agents are by no means ready to take part in a war and a military confrontation,” Zarei wrote.
While Kayhan is a small circulation newspaper in Iran, its editor-in-chief Hossein Shariatmadari was appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and has been described as an adviser to him in the past.
Haifa, on the Mediterranean Sea, has been threatened in the past by both Iran and one of its proxies, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
Such a strike likely would draw an immediate Israeli retaliation and spark a wider conflict across the Mideast. While Iran has never directly targeted an Israeli city militarily, it has conducted attacks targeting Israeli interests abroad in the past over the killing of its scientists, like in the case of the three Iranians recently freed in Thailand in exchange for a detained British-Australian academic.
Israel also is widely believed to have its own nuclear weapons, a stockpile it neither confirms nor denies possessing.
The Iranian parliament on Sunday held a closed-door hearing about Fakhrizadeh’s killing. Afterward, parliament speaker Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf said Iran’s enemies must be made to regret killing him.
“The criminal enemy does not regret it except with a strong reaction,” he said in a broadcast on Iranian state radio.
A public session of lawmakers saw them chant: “Death to America! Death to Israel!” They also began the review of a bill that would stop inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The nuclear watchdog has provided an unprecedented, real-time look at Iran’s civilian nuclear program following the country’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
The deal has unraveled after Trump’s unilateral 2018 withdrawal of the U.S. from the accord. Iran’s civilian atomic program has since continued its experiments and now enriches a growing uranium stockpile up to 4.5% purity.
That’s still far below weapons-grade levels of 90%, though experts warn Iran now has enough low-enriched uranium to reprocess into fuel for at least two atomic bombs if it chose to pursue them.
State television broadcast images of Fakhrizadeh’s casket being flown to Mashhad, a holy Shiite city in Iran’s east home to the shrine of Imam Reza. Iranian media said Sunday that one of the scientist’s bodyguards also had died from wounds he suffered in Friday’s attack.
Khamenei has called Fakhrizadeh “the country’s prominent and distinguished nuclear and defensive scientist” and has demanded the “definitive punishment” of those behind the killing, without elaborating.
Fakhrizadeh headed Iran’s so-called AMAD program that Israel and the West have alleged was a military operation looking at the feasibility of building a nuclear weapon. The International Atomic Energy Agency says the “structured program” ended in 2003. U.S. intelligence agencies concurred with that assessment in a 2007 report.
Israel contends Iran is still intent on developing a nuclear weapon. It argues Iran’s ballistic missile program and other research could help build a bomb if it pursued one — especially as provisions of the 2015 nuclear deal expire. Iran long has maintained its nuclear program is peaceful and that it has no plans to build an atomic bomb.
His killing likely complicates the plans of President-elect Joe Biden, who has said his administration will consider reentering Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers. It also raises the risk of an open conflict in Trump’s final weeks in office as any retaliation could provoke an American military response, said Amos Yadlin, a one-time head of Israeli military intelligence who now serves as the director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.
“I highly recommend to the officials to keep their mouths closed and not leak anything. They’ve already spoke too much,” he said, referring to cryptic remarks by Israel’s prime minister to his supporters that he could not discuss everything he did last week.
“Any more evidence that will help the Iranians to decide on retaliation against Israel is a mistake,” Yadlin said.
November 29, 2020
Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writer Joseph Krauss in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
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