WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s senior adviser Jared Kushner will travel to the Middle East this week amid heightened tensions over the assassination of a top Iranian scientist, who had been credited with overseeing Tehran’s now defunct covert nuclear program.
Kushner, who is also Trump’s son-in-law, will travel to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, a source familiar with the matter, who was not authorized to comment publicly, told USA TODAY. The trip was first reported by Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal. This official said Kushner’s trip will be focused on healing a long-standing rift between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
But Kushner’s visit to the two Middle East allies comes just days after the targeted killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a nuclear scientist who Israeli officials referred to as the “father” of Iran’s nuclear program. He led Iran’s “Amad” program, which Israel alleged was a covert military operation to probe the feasibility of building a nuclear weapon.
Tensions over Iran
The International Atomic Energy Agency says that program ended in 2003, and U.S. intelligence agencies concurred with that assessment in a 2007 report. Iran has long maintained its nuclear program is for peaceful, civilian purposes only, a claim that Israel and U.S. officials reject.
Iran has blamed Israel for Fakhrizadeh’s murder and vowed to exact revenge. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called Fakhrizadeh “the country’s prominent and distinguished nuclear and defensive scientist.”
He said Iran’s first priority after the killing was the “definitive punishment of the perpetrators and those who ordered it.”
The attack has renewed fears that Iran may strike back, raising tensions across the region.
In a statement released Monday, the United Arab Emirates, which just reached a historic normalization deal with Israel, condemned “the heinous assassination” of Fakhrizadeh. The UAE’s foreign ministry warned the killing “could further fuel conflict in the region.”
What it means for the Biden administration
Some Iran experts and senior Iranian officials have speculated that Fakhrizadeh’s killing could be part of a concerted attempt to sabotage diplomacy between Iran and the incoming Biden administration. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is publicly pressuring President-elect Joe Biden not to rejoin the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the accord in 2018.
Biden’s transition office declined to comment on Fakhrizadeh’s murder. But the president-elect has made it clear that he wants to revive the nuclear accord, negotiated during the Obama administration, under which Iran agreed to curbs on its nuclear program in exchange for relief from international sanctions.
“It’s not unlikely that this targeted killing was part of efforts to prevent the Biden administration from reviving diplomacy with (Iran) and going back to the nuclear agreement,” Carl Bildt, Sweden’s former prime minister, posted on Twitter after news of the attack first emerged.
Israeli officials have refused to comment on the attack; U.S. officials have also been mum. But experts say the incident has the hallmarks of an assassination orchestrated by Israeli’s Mossad spy agency.
According to initial reports from Iranian state television, the attack began outside of Tehran when a truck laden with explosives and hidden under a load of wood blew up as a car carrying Fakhrizadeh drew near.
But on Monday, a top Iranian security official, accused Israel of using “electronic devices” to kill Fakhrizadeh remotely. Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the country’s Supreme National Security Council, made the comment at Fakhrizadeh’s funeral.
“Unfortunately, the operation was a very complicated operation and was carried out by using electronic devices,” Shamkhani told state TV. “No individual was present at the site.”
Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard, David Jackson, Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Iranian scientist’s assassination: Jared Kushner heads to Middle East