As senior Iranian officials blame Israel, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei and others have vowed revenge for the murder of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was the country’s leading nuclear scientist.
There were conflicting accounts from Iranian news agencies about how the attack unfolded.
A report by Fars News on Sunday said that Fakhrizadeh was traveling with his wife on Friday in a bulletproof car, alongside three vehicles from security personnel, when he heard what sounded like bullets hitting a vehicle, and he got out of the car to determine what had happened.
When he got out of the vehicle, a remote machine gun opened fire from a stopped Nissan about 150 meters from Fakhrizadeh’s car, Fars News said.
CNN cannot independently confirm the news agency’s version of events.
The semi-official Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) also reported that Fakhrizadeh’s car was hit by gunfire, followed by an explosion and other gunfire, citing the Iranian minister of Defense Brig. General Amir Hatami.
“Based on reports received from members of his security service, Mr. Fakhrizadeh’s vehicle was initially targeted by gunfire, after which a Nissan vehicle loaded with explosives was set off near them while shots aimed at their vehicle continued, ”Hatami said, according to ISNA.
IRIB, Iran’s state television, said the explosion took place first, followed by gunfire from the attackers.
Seyed Kamal Kharrazi, head of Iran’s Strategic Foreign Relations Council, compared the assassination to the murder of Qasem Soleimani, the official Islamic Republic news agency reported on Sunday. Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was killed in a US drone strike earlier this year in Iraq.
“There is no doubt that the Islamic Republic of Iran will give a calculated and decisive response to the criminals who took martyr Fakhrizadeh,” Kharrazi said.
Fakhrizadeh was the head of the Center for Research on New Technologies in the elite Revolutionary Guards and was a leading figure in Iran’s nuclear program.
Iranian leaders blame Israel
Supreme Leader Khameini wrote on a Twitter account on Saturday that often carries his official statements: “Mr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh has been killed by oppressive enemies. This rare scientific mind lost his life for his immense eternal scientific work. He lost his life for God and the Supreme Leader. ”
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called on the international community “to put an end to their shameful double weight” and “to condemn this act of state terror”. He added that the attack showed “serious indications of the Israeli role”.
Major General Hossein Dehghan, Khamenei’s military adviser, tweeted on Saturday that the “Zionists” sought to create “all-out war” and vowed to “descend like lightning” on Fakhrizadeh’s assassins.
President Hassan Rouhani, also among many Iranian leaders blaming Israel, also pledged retaliation, telling a cabinet meeting on Saturday: “Iran’s think tanks and enemies must know that the Iranian nation and officials in charge in the country are courageous and determined to respond to the murder on time. ”
The murder, he said, was carried out “in the dirty hands of the oppressors, in concert with the illegitimate Zionist regime.”
Iran has provided no evidence of Israeli involvement. The office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to comment on CNN on Friday.
Israeli Settlement Minister Tzachi Hanegbi told Israel’s Channel 12 that he had “no idea” who killed Fakhrizadeh, but called it “very embarrassing for Iran”.
The US State Department and the International Atomic Energy Agency have said in several reports that Fakhrizadeh has extensive knowledge of the nuclear capabilities of the Islamic Republic. In 2018, Netanyahu said Fakhrizadeh was the head of Project Amad, which he and others describe as a secret nuclear weapons company.
“Remember that name, Fakhrizadeh,” the prime minister told reporters at the time.
Protests erupt in Tehran
The murder threatens to escalate tensions in Tehran-Washington relations, which have deteriorated under US President Donald Trump. In 2018, Trump withdrew from a multilateral nuclear deal with Iran, and Iran began withdrawing its commitments from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action last year. Trump has invoked crippling economic sanctions against the country.
The White House is closely monitoring Fakhrizadeh’s assassination, she said. Trump retweeted Israeli journalist Yossi Melman on Friday, who wrote that Fakhrizadeh “was the head of Iran’s secret military program and wanted for many years by the Mossad,” the Israeli foreign intelligence agency.
Iranian students and youth converged on several government buildings in Tehran, and during a protest outside the Foreign Ministry on Saturday, protesters burned American and Israeli flags and posters depicting Trump and President-elect Joe Biden.
The European Union condemned the murder and called for “maximum restraint”, while the UK Foreign Office said it “was urgently trying to establish the facts”.
Fakhrizadeh’s funeral and burial will take place on Monday, Fars News reported. Fakhrizadeh’s remains were taken to Imam Reza’s shrine, one of the most important religious centers for the Shiites, in Mashhad on Saturday. After a Sunday service in Mashhad, his body was to be transported to Tehran to the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic.
CNN’s Ramin Mostaghim, Angela Dewan and Samantha Beech contributed to this report.