Today's D Brief: Iranian nuke scientist killed; CIA agent KIA in Somalia; NATO & China; New COVID record; And a bit more.

Iran laid to rest one of its most prominent nuclear scientists today. The man was killed in an allegedly very elaborate — and remote — manner on Friday on a highway near Tehran. 

The scientist's name was Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. The Wall Street Journal calls him “the father of Iran’s weapons program in the 1990s and 2000s.” He was someone who “had little public profile in Iran but had been named by Israel as a prime player in what it says is Iran’s nuclear weapons quest,” Reuters reports.

According to Iranian officials, the prime suspects include Israel’s intelligence agency, as well as a Paris-based ensemble called National Council of Resistance of Iran, which Reuters calls "an umbrella bloc of opposition groups in exile that seek an end to Shi’ite Muslim clerical rule." So far, Israeli officials have “repeatedly declined to comment on the attack,” the Associated Press reports today from the Iranian capital. Iranian exile group Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, which has partnered with Israel in the past, is also considered a suspect.

About the attack: The New York Times alleges 12 attackers were involved, including snipers and gunmen on motorcycles — and all of them escaped unharmed. Iranian officials “initially said a truck exploded and then gunmen opened fire on the scientist, killing him and a bodyguard,” AP reports. And that narrative largely fits the NYT’s retelling. But Iranian state TV Al-Alam now alleges the gun used to kill Fakhrizadeh was actually mounted on an unmanned truck and triggered remotely, perhaps “by satellite.” Then moments after the shooting occurred, the truck allegedly exploded. 

Caveat: “None of the outlets immediately offered evidence supporting their claims,” AP notes. (For what it’s worth, the Times’ retelling credits “a detailed account posted online by Javad Mogouyi, a documentary filmmaker for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.”)

“[T]he operation was a very complicated operation and was carried out by using electronic devices,” said Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, at Fakhrizadeh’s funeral today. 

“We will answer at the right time,” Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, said on Saturday. “All the enemies should know that the great Iranian people are more courageous and honorable to not respond to this criminal act.”

Iran now has essentially two very different responses available, according to the New York Times: (1) Embrace “hard-liner demands for swift retaliation,” or (2) try “to make a fresh start with the Biden administration.”

Regional reax: Jordanian officials condembed Friday’s killing, and the UAE called it a “heinous assassination” that “could further fuel conflict in the region.” 

Headed to the Middle East this week: Jared Kushner, as well as White House regional envoys Avi Berkowitz and Brian Hook. They’re bringing along Adam Boehler, chief executive of the US International Development Finance Corporation. Kushner plans to meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and perhaps for the last time as a White House official, the Wall Street Journal reported Sunday. 

Worth noting: “Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Saudi Arabia to speak with Prince Mohammed, in the first known meeting between leaders of the two countries, which have no official diplomatic relations,” the Journal reports.

Kushner’s team is ostensibly traveling to the region in order to mediate a simmering dispute between the Saudis and Qatar, with stops planned in both countries. More from the Guardian, here.

Also in the region: the aircraft carrier Nimitz. The Defense Department and 5th Fleets both announced the carrier's presence as Iran vowed retaliation for the assassination, adding that the carrier strike group had returned to the region “to provide security for the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq,” reported Sunday.

From Defense One

Dems See GOP Electioneering in Air Force Choice of Georgia for C-130 Base // Marcus Weisgerber: A Trump appointee wants Air National Guard planes sent to the state that holds the key to Senate control.

How Biden and Kerry Could Rebuild America’s Global Climate Leadership // Morgan Bazilian and Dolf Gielen, The Conversation: Kerry’s decades of experience and the international relationships he developed as a senator and secretary of state may give him a chance.

Tapping Flournoy as SecDef Would Be a Really Big Deal // Janine Davidson: A natsec black belt and outstanding leader, the former policy undersecretary would also be uniquely positioned to implement some long-overdue personnel changes.

Biden Has Many Good Choices at SecDef // James Joyner: I’m rooting for Flournoy, but she’s not the only one who would do well.

Welcome to this Cyber Monday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson with Bradley Peniston. Send us tips from your community right here. And if you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. On this busy day in 1999, British Aerospace and Marconi Electronic Systems merged to become the defense contractor BAE Systems. On the same day, Exxon and Mobil merged to create ExxonMobil, which was the world's largest company by revenue at the time; meanwhile, anti-globalism protestors flooded into Seattle, Wash., delaying the first day of the World Trade Organization's Ministerial Conference. 

NATO’s growing China problem. Wanna set NATO’s future on a better course? Then officials had better “think harder about how to handle China and its military rise,” according to an alliance report set for release on Tuesday. That’s just one of 138 proposals inside the report, entitled “NATO 2030,” according to Reuters. “The report will be discussed by NATO foreign ministers on Tuesday before being presented to the alliance’s heads of state and government next year.”
Other recommendations include advice that “foreign ministers meet more regularly,” and that the alliance’s secretary general take a more prominent role in mediating disputes. A bit more, here.

A CIA officer was killed during combat in Somalia shortly before Thanksgiving, and he was a former member of SEAL Team 6, the New York Times reported Wednesday.
One reason why this matters: Trump could attempt to order a full Somali withdrawal before leaving office, which would remove “virtually all of the more than 700 American military forces in Somalia conducting training and counterterrorism missions,” the Times writes. “Pentagon officials said [last] week that they were still working out details of the drawdown in Somalia.”
Critical caveat: “The Trump administration plan under discussion would not apply to U.S. troops stationed in nearby Kenya and Djibouti, where American drones that carry out airstrikes in Somalia are based.” Read on, here.

Three French military bases in northern Mali were attacked this morning, though no one seems to have been harmed, Reuters reports from Bamako. “The attacks come after French forces killed Bah ag Moussa, a military leader of al Qaeda’s North Africa wing on Nov. 10," Reuters writes. Moussa was allegedly close to "the leader of Mali’s most prominent jihadi group, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), which has repeatedly attacked soldiers and civilians in Mali and neighbouring Burkina Faso." More here.

There are allegedly new tensions in Afghanistan over how to frame alleged progress in peace talks, the New York Times reported Sunday from Kabul. The new wrinkle emerged Saturday when the Taliban “announced on social media that both sides had agreed to the nearly two dozen points under discussion earlier this month — a framework for how talks would go forward, including points of protocol and how issues would be presented.”
However, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani reportedly "took exception to at least one detail, insisting that the government side be referred to by its formal name, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, rather than by a more generic reference."
For the record, Ghani’s office pushed back on the Times report, calling unspecified portions of it “unwarranted and baseless” in a tweet today.
According to local Tolo News, Ghani’s office is deferring to officials with the High Council for National Reconciliation.
By the way: “[D]efense ministers of NATO allies will discuss Afghanistan on Tuesday,” Tolo reports. So, more to come later this week. 

Back stateside: COVID hospitalizations set a new record. According to NPR, “More than 91,500 people were hospitalized with the virus on Saturday, with 18,000 in intensive care units. That's according to data compiled by the COVID Tracking Project, which collects and analyzes data from across the United States.”
Fauci warns of “surge upon a surge.” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, told ABC News on Sunday, "We don't want to frighten people, but that's just the reality. We said that these things would happen as we got into the cold weather and as we began traveling, and they've happened." As the December holidays approach, "it's going to happen again," Fauci said. "We're getting into colder weather and an even larger holiday season." Read, or watch, here.
The good news: three vaccines have passed major milestones that bring the promise of widescale vaccination closer.
Some context for the effort from Dr. Eric Topol: “This will go down in history as one of science and medical research's greatest achievements. Perhaps the most impressive. I put together a preliminary timeline of some key milestones to show how several years of work were compressed into months.” Read that thread, here.
But actually vaccinating a population is a whole new set of challenges. The Washington Post wraps some of them up, here.