Iran Lifts Nuclear Research Group's Budget by 256 Percent After Scientist Killing

Iran's defense minister has announced that the organization overseeing the military's nuclear research projects will be given a 256 percent budget increase, less than a month after one of its leading scientists was assassinated near Tehran.

Defense Minister Amir Hatami said Tuesday that the Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research—widely known by its Farsi acronym, SPND—will have its annual budget more than trebled, according to the state-run Fars News Agency.

The announcement marks another escalation in the international community's nuclear standoff with Iran, and comes despite pressure on Iran to scale back its nuclear activities, and threats from President Donald Trump's outgoing administration that it will not accept a nuclear Iran.

The SPND was founded in 2011 and led by Mohsen Fakhrizadeh—widely considered the father of Iran's nuclear program. The 61-year-old was assassinated last month on a country road outside Tehran in an attack that the regime has blamed on Israel.

The SPND has been sanctioned by the U.S. State and Treasury departments for its activities. The State Department has said the organization is "primarily responsible for research in the field of nuclear weapons development," and that its "key personnel played a central role in the Iranian regime's past nuclear weapons effort."

It is not clear whether the U.S. knew about, approved or even supported the operation to kill Fakhrizadeh. Iranian officials have hinted that the U.S. was complicit, and have vowed to take revenge against all those responsible.

The killing comes at the end of four years of U.S.-Iran tensions, which have seen the two sides come close to war multiple times. Trump and his allies have sought—unsuccessfully—to force Tehran to re-negotiate a stricter version of the Obama-era Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, from which Trump withdrew with Israeli backing in 2018.

There are now only weeks of Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran remaining, with President-Elect Joe Biden vowing to reopen dialogue and rejoin the JCPOA. Trump and his allies in Israel could yet launch more actions against Tehran, whether to undermine the beleaguered regime or to make it more difficult for Biden to thaw relations.

Biden is already facing a challenging environment after the assassinations of Fakhrizadeh and Major General Qassem Soleimani. Tehran said it would no longer comply with any elements of the JCPOA after the latter was killed in a drone strike in January.

Iran has since been expanding its enriched uranium stockpile—now 12 times that allowed under the JCPOA—and increasing its capacity to enrich more of the material to a higher level. Uranium enriched to between 3 and 5 percent can be used as nuclear fuel, while that enriched up to around 90 percent can be used in weapons.

Following Fakhrizadeh's killing, the conservative-dominated Iranian parliament passed a new measure ordering the country's nuclear agency to expand uranium enrichment, enrich some of the material to 20 percent—a relatively simple technical step from 90 percent weapons-grade material—and block International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors from nuclear facilities.

The announcement to expand SPND funding will likewise be seen as a retaliatory move to up the ante on the incoming administration and signal that Iran is willing to push ahead on its nuclear projects if diplomacy fails and sanctions are not lifted.

Iranian leaders have said they remain open to reviving the JCPOA if Biden returns the U.S. to full compliance. But moderate President Hassan Rouhani's term will end this summer, and he is widely expected to be replaced by a hardliner candidate, perhaps even one from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

This could make negotiation on the JCPOA and other issues—for example Iran's ballistic missile program and its regional proxy network—more difficult.

Hatami said Thursday that the SPND funding boost will also augment Iran's missile capabilities, which he said had become "a thorn in the eyes of enemies."

 Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami
This file photograph shows Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami attending the VII Moscow Conference on International Security MCIS-2018 in Moscow on April 4, 2018. ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty