DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – An Iranian scientist named by the West as the head of the Islamic Republic’s dissolved military nuclear program was killed in an ambush on the outskirts of Tehran on Friday, authorities said.
The Iranian foreign minister alleged that the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh provided “serious indications” of the Israeli role, but gave no details. Israel, long suspected of killing several Iranian nuclear scientists ten years ago, declined to comment immediately. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once told the public to “remember this name” when speaking of Fakhrizadeh.
Murder threatens to escalate tensions across the Middle East, nearly a year after Iran and the US stood on the brink of war when a US drone strike killed a senior general Iranian in Baghdad .. This comes as President-elect Joe Biden is set to be inaugurated in January and will likely complicate his efforts to bring America back to a pact to ensure Iran does not have enough of highly enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon.
The deal, which saw Iran limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions, collapsed entirely after President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018.
Trump himself retweeted a post by Israeli journalist Yossi Melman, an Israeli Mossad intelligence expert, about the murder. Melman’s tweet called the murder “a major psychological and professional blow to Iran”.
Details of the murder remained slim in the hours following the attack, which took place in Absard, a village just east of the capital that is a retreat for Iran’s elite. Iranian state television said an old truck with explosives hidden under a load of wood exploded near a sedan carrying Fakhrizadeh.
As Fakhrizadeh’s sedan came to a stop, at least five gunmen got out and raked the car with rapid fire, the semi-official Tasnim news agency said.
Fakhrizadeh died in a hospital after medics and paramedics were unable to resuscitate him. Among the others injured were Fakhrizadeh’s bodyguards. Photos and videos shared online showed a Nissan sedan with bullet holes in the windshield and blood pooled on the road.
Although no one claimed responsibility for the attack, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has blamed Israel, calling the murder an act of “state terror”.
“Terrorists murdered a prominent Iranian scientist today. This cowardice – along with serious indications of the Israeli role – shows desperate warmongering on the part of the perpetrators, ”Zarif wrote on Twitter.
Hossein Dehghan, adviser to Iran’s supreme leader and presidential candidate in Iran’s 2021 elections, also blamed Israel – and issued a warning.
“In the final days of their gaming ally’s political life, the Zionists seek to step up and increase pressure on Iran to wage a full-fledged war,” Dehghan wrote, appearing to refer to the latest Trump’s days in power. “We will descend like lightning on the assassins of this oppressed martyr and we will make them regret their actions!”
The attack comes just days before the tenth anniversary of the murder of Iranian nuclear scientist Majid Shahriari that Tehran has also blamed on Israel. These and other targeted assassinations occurred as the so-called Stuxnet virus, believed to be an Israeli and American creation, destroyed Iranian centrifuges.
The area around Absard, which offers views of Mount Damavand, the country’s highest peak, is full of holiday villas. As part of the Iranian weekend on Friday, the roads were emptier than normal due to a lockdown over the coronavirus pandemic, giving its attackers a chance to strike with fewer people.
Fakhrizadeh led Iran’s so-called AMAD program which Israel and the West believed was a military operation examining the feasibility of building a nuclear weapon. Tehran has long maintained its nuclear program for civilian purposes only.
The International Atomic Energy Agency claims that Iran “carried out activities related to the development of a nuclear explosive device” under a “structured program” until the end of 2003. This was the AMAD program, which included work on high explosives carefully programmed to detonate an implosion-type nuclear bomb.
Iran also “carried out computer modeling of a nuclear explosive device” before 2005 and between 2005 and 2009, the IAEA said. The agency said, however, that those calculations were “incomplete and fragmented.”
IAEA inspectors are now monitoring Iranian nuclear sites as part of the now collapsing nuclear deal with world powers. Experts believe Iran has enough low-enriched uranium to make at least two nuclear weapons if it chooses to pursue the bomb. Meanwhile, a state-of-the-art centrifuge assembly plant at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility exploded in July in what Tehran now calls a sabotage attack.
Fakhrizadeh, born in 1958, had been sanctioned by the UN Security Council and the United States for his work on AMAD. Iran has always described him as a university professor of physics. A member of the Revolutionary Guards, Fakhrizadeh was seen in photos at meetings attended by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a sign of his power.
In recent years, US sanctions lists have named him head of the Iranian Organization for Defensive Research and Innovation. The State Department described this organization last year as working on “dual-use research and development activities, some aspects of which are potentially useful for nuclear weapons and nuclear weapon launch systems.”
In 2018, Netanyahu gave a presentation in which he exposed what he described as material stolen by Israel from Iranian nuclear archives.
“A key part of the plan was to form new organizations to continue the work,” Netanyahu said. “This is how Dr Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, head of the Amad project, put it. Remember this name, Fakhrizadeh.
Associated Press editors Amir Vahdat and Mohammad Nasiri in Tehran, Iran, and Deb Riechmann in Washington contributed to this report.