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Iranian Nuclear Scientist Assassinated, State Media Says

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This year, 2020, began with the dramatic attack by the United States that killed an Iranian general. We now approach the end of the year with news of another killing. Iran says someone attacked and killed a man described as an eminent Iranian scientist - and not just any scientist, Israel has in the past identified this man as the head of Iran's nuclear program. We should emphasize, we do not know who conducted the attack and that Iran is the only source of information so far.

NPR's Peter Kenyon is tracking what is known from Istanbul. Hi there, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What more can you say about the man who was targeted?

KENYON: Well, Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was 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 had ever succeeded in creating a nuclear weapon. Fakhrizadeh has been targeted before, and that doesn't make him unique. Several Iranian nuclear scientists have been. Four were killed between 2010 and 2012 in a series of shooting or bomb attacks blamed on Israel.

INSKEEP: Blamed on Israel - how does Iran say this attack was conducted? Again, emphasizing we only have Iranian sources at this point.

KENYON: Yes. And they are freely saying these were Israeli assassins who were using explosives and bullets to attack the car that the scientist was riding in outside of Tehran.

INSKEEP: So he's inside Iran. He's attacked inside Iran, and it's some kind of face-to-face attack, at least according to Iranian sources. And Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, is also making a comment leaning toward Israel. But is Israel saying anything at this point, or is the United States saying anything?

KENYON: Israel and the U.S. are denying all comment. As you mentioned, Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, put out on Twitter, quote, "Terrorists murdered an eminent Iranian scientist today. This cowardice - with serious indications," he says, "of Israeli role - shows desperate warmongering." Zarif goes on to call on the international community, especially the European Union, to, what he says, "end their shameful double standards and condemn this act of state terror."

INSKEEP: OK. So it's very early here. We're just getting information. But let's try to put it into context if we can. This is a momentous moment in the United States because we're in the middle of a presidential transition. What does that transition mean for Iran, and what are the implications of an assassination in the middle of that?

KENYON: Well, you bring up a good point. And I should say there's elections on both - in both countries coming up. I mean, this - well, there just was one in the U.S., and there's one coming up in Iran. But the Trump administration has already said that it intended to take some sort of actions before the term ends. And, of course, we're in the very early stage of this. We don't know who's responsible. We're waiting for more confirmed information. But obviously, both Israel and the U.S. have been involved in past attacks, so it's not surprising that Iran is blaming them.

INSKEEP: And the new president - the incoming president, Joe Biden, was part of the Obama administration that worked out a nuclear deal with Iran, which President Trump backed out of, although other nations have tried to keep it. I suppose one of the questions for Joe Biden is going to be, how does he approach Iran? And one of the issues may be an assassination like this.

KENYON: Well - and it seems clear from the comments that have been coming out of Washington and the Trump administration that they would like nothing better than to leave the U.S. situation with Iran in such a fraught, antagonistic state that Biden would not find it very easy to get back into the nuclear deal or find other kinds of rapprochement.

INSKEEP: OK - a little bit of context, then, for the apparent assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist inside Iran.

NPR's Peter Kenyon, thanks so much.

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