An Iranian scientist that Israel has credited with masterminding the Islamic Republic’s covert military nuclear program until it was disbanded two decades ago was assassinated outside Tehran on Friday, Iran’s top diplomat confirmed.
“Terrorists murdered an eminent Iranian scientist today,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said in a tweet. Zarif said Israel was likely to blame but did not provide evidence.
Mohsen Fakhrizadeh’s killing comes as Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly advocated that President-elect Joe Biden should refrain from re-joining the nuclear deal reached between Iran and world powers.
President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the accord.
Initially, there were conflicting reports over whether Fakhrizadeh survived the assault. It took place as the car he was traveling in east of Iran’s capital came under machine gunfire, according to state TV and Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency.
Witnesses also heard the sound of an explosion. A wounded Fakhrizadeh was later taken to a local hospital along with several of his bodyguards, the agency said.
There were no immediate claims of responsibility.
State TV said more information would be provided later. A statement by Iran’s armed forces said Fakhrizadeh died from his injuries while in the hospital.
Israel’s government declined to immediately comment on the reports about Fakhrizadeh, whom Israeli diplomats often refer to as Iran’s “father of the bomb.” During a news conference, Prime Netanyahu once said of Fakhrizadeh: “Remember that name.”
Israel has long been suspected of carrying out targeted killings of Iranian nuclear scientists nearly a decade ago to halt its suspected military nuclear program.
The nuclear pact Trump abandoned was negotiated under President Barack Obama in 2015 and some Iran experts, former diplomats and even senior Iranian officials speculated that Fakhrizadeh’s killing could be part of a concerted attempt to sabotage any fresh diplomacy between Iran and the incoming Biden administration.
“It’s not unlikely that this targeted killing was part of efforts to prevent the Biden administration from reviving diplomacy with Flag of Iran and going back to the nuclear agreement,” said Carl Bildt, Sweden’s former prime minister, on Twitter.
Hossein Dehghan, a senior military adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, also took to Twitter to offer a theory. “In the last days of the political life of their ally (Trump) … (Israel) seeks to intensify pressure on Iran and create a full-blown war,” he said.
There is no indication the White House knew beforehand of the assassination plot.
Requests for comment from the U.S. National Security Council, U.S. State Department and the U.S. Department of Defense were declined.
But Trump on Friday did retweet a newspaper article about Fakhrizadeh’s assassination along with some comments by an Israel writer named Yossi Meman who claimed Fakhrizadeh’s death “is a major psychological and professional blow for Iran.”
Trump authorized the assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani last year by drone strike when the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp commander was in Baghdad.
Iran has vowed to take revenge for Soleimani’s killing.
The one-year anniversary of his death is in January.
However, so far Iran has exercised relative restraint.
It has remained in the nuclear pact with world powers – with loosened compliance – the U.S. withdrew from and maintained it is theoretically open to resuming the deal with U.S. participation. Biden has also indicated he prefers to be part of the accord.
Fakhrizadeh was a Brigadier General in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. He led Iran’s so-called “Amad,” or “Hope” program. Israel and the West have alleged it was a military operation looking at the feasibility of building a nuclear weapon in Iran. Tehran long has maintained its nuclear program is peaceful.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says that “Amad” program ended sometime around 2003. IAEA inspectors now monitor Iranian nuclear sites as part of Iran’s now-unraveling nuclear agreement with world powers.
The IAEA concluded earlier this month that Iran’s uranium stockpile is now 12 times larger than permitted under the nuclear accord that Trump withdrew from.
Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that espouses a hardline on Iran, said Fakhrizadeh was “the most critical player in Iran’s nuclear efforts” and his removal has “enormous implications for whether Iran can continue to move forward without his know-how.”
Dubowitz said the attack “certainly has the hallmarks of an Israeli operation” and noted that Fakhrizadeh had been on Israel’s target list for many years.
He said it’s not clear if the U.S. had any role in the attack, but it’s likely the CIA at least got a heads up about the operation.
“I would imagine there was some information sharing or even more extensive cooperation,” he said, especially given the strong relationship between CIA Director Gina Haspel and her Israeli counterpart, Yossi Cohen, head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency.