Mohsen Fakhrizadeh gunned down near Tehran; Iran blames Israel; UN, Germany urge restraint.
Iran vowed revenge on Saturday for the assassination a day earlier of its top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, raising the threat of a new confrontation between the Islamic Republic and the West with just over seven weeks left of US President Donald Trump’s term in office.
“Once again, the evil hands of global arrogance were stained with the blood of the mercenary usurper Zionist regime,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said. “Iran will surely respond to the martyrdom of our scientist at the proper time.”
Head of Iran’s covert nuclear weapons program, Fakhrizadeh was shot and killed in Damavand, east of Tehran on Friday afternoon.
Pictures from the scene showed two vehicles, one damaged in an explosion and another riddled with bullets in what appeared like a professional hit.
Fakhrizadeh was a senior Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) officer and headed Iran’s nuclear weapons project. He was a professor of physics at the Imam Hussein University in Tehran and was former head of Iran’s Physics Research Center (PHRC). He was the only Iranian scientist named in the IAEA’s 2015 “final assessment” of open questions about Iran’s nuclear program. It said he oversaw activities “in support of a possible military dimension to (Iran’s) nuclear program.”
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei pledged to continue the work of Fakhrizadeh, whom Western and Israeli governments have dubbed the Iranian version of Robert Oppenheimer, one of the heads of the Manhattan Project.
A military adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei accused Israel of trying to provoke “a full-blown” war by killing Fakhrizadeh. “In the last days of the political life of their… ally (US President Donald Trump), the Zionists (Israel) seek to intensify pressure on Iran and create a full-blown war,” commander Hossein Dehghan tweeted.
“We will strike as thunder at the killers of this oppressed martyr and will make them regret their action,” Dehghan wrote.
Fakhrizadeh has been a target of interest for Israeli intelligence agencies for the last 15 years.
In 2018, at the unveiling of Iran’s secret nuclear archive acquired by the Mossad, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu mentioned Fakhrizadeh and said: “remember that name, Fakhrizadeh.”
The files retrieved by the Mossad focused on Iran’s weapons program known as “Project Amad,” which was led by Fakhrizadeh. When Iran entered the 2015 nuclear deal, it denied that such a program existed.
In 2003, Iran was forced to shelve Project Amad, but not its nuclear ambitions. It split its program into an overt program and a covert one that continued the nuclear work under the title of scientific knowhow development, Netanyahu said at the time.
It continued this work in a series of organizations, which in 2018 were led by SPND, an organization inside Iran’s Defense Ministry led by the same person who led Project Amad – Dr. Fakhrizadeh, Netanyahu said.
Following Fakhrizadeh’s assassination, Iran wrote a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the UN Security Council claiming “serious indications of Israeli responsibility” and that it reserves the right to defend itself.
Guterres urged restraint. “We have noted the reports that an Iranian nuclear scientist has been assassinated near Tehran today. We urge restraint and the need to avoid any actions that could lead to an escalation of tensions in the region,” Guterres’ spokesman Farhan Haq said.
The death of Fakhrizadeh has the potential to complicate efforts by US President-elect Joe Biden to revive the detente of Barack Obama’s presidency, and may lead to confrontation between Iran and its foes in the last weeks of Trump’s presidency.
“Whether Iran is tempted to take revenge or whether it restrains itself, it will make it difficult for Biden to return to the nuclear agreement,” Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli military intelligence chief and director of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, wrote on Twitter.
At least four scientists were killed between 2010 and 2012 in what Tehran said was a program of assassinations aimed at sabotaging its nuclear energy program. Iran has always denied pursuing nuclear weapons, saying its aims are only peaceful.
The United States deployed US aircraft carrier Nimitz with accompanying ships to the Gulf on Wednesday, shortly before the killing, but a US Navy spokeswoman said the deployment was not related to any specific threats.
Germany also urged all sides to show restraint. “A few weeks before the new US administration takes office, it is important to preserve the scope for talks with Iran so that the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program can be resolved through negotiations,” a Foreign Ministry spokesman said.
“We therefore urge all parties to refrain from any steps that could lead to a further escalation of the situation.”