Iran’s foreign minister claimed that the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh had “serious indications” of an Israeli role, but did not elaborate. Israel declined to comment immediately, although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once called Fakhrizadeh at a press conference saying, “Remember that name.” Israel has long been suspected of carrying out a series of targeted assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists nearly a decade ago.
The carnage risked further escalating tensions in the Middle East, as just a year ago Iran and the United States were on the brink of war. It comes just as President-elect Joe Biden is about to be inaugurated in January and is likely to complicate his efforts to return the United States to the Iran nuclear deal.
State television said Fakhrizadeh was targeted by “armed terrorist elements.” He died at a local hospital after doctors and paramedics were unable to revive him.
The semi-official Fars news agency, believed to be close to the country’s Revolutionary Guard, said the attack occurred in Absard, a small city east of the capital, Tehran. He said witnesses heard the sound of an explosion and then machine gun fire. The attack targeted a car that Fakhrizadeh was in, the agency said.
Other wounded, including Fakhrizadeh’s bodyguards, were also taken to a local hospital, the agency said.
State television on its website later published a photograph of security forces blocking the road. Photos and videos shared online showed a Nissan sedan with bullet holes in the windshield and blood pooled on the road.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack. However, Iranian media pointed to the interest that Netanyahu had previously shown in Fakhrizadeh. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Twitter also pointed the finger at Israel, calling the killing an act of “state terror.”
“Terrorists assassinated an eminent Iranian scientist today. This cowardice, with serious indications of Israel’s role, shows the desperate warmongering of the perpetrators,” Zarif wrote on Twitter.
Hossein Salami, commander-in-chief of the paramilitary Guard, appeared to recognize the attack on Fakhrizadeh.
“Assassinating nuclear scientists is the most violent confrontation preventing us from reaching modern science,” Salami tweeted.
Hossein Dehghan, an adviser to Iran’s supreme leader and a presidential candidate in the 2021 Iran elections, issued a warning on Twitter.
“In the final days of their ally’s political life in the game, the Zionists seek to intensify and increase pressure on Iran to wage a full-blown war,” wrote Dehghan, who appears to be referring to US President Donald Trump. “We will descend like lightning on the murderers of this oppressed martyr and make them repent of their actions!”
The assassination comes just days before the 10th anniversary of the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Majid Shahriari, for which Tehran also blamed Israel. Those targeted killings came along with the so-called Stuxnet virus, believed to be an Israeli and American creation, which destroyed Iranian centrifuges.
The area around Absard is full of vacation villas for the Iranian elite overlooking Mount Damavand, the highest peak in the country. Roads on Friday, part of the Iranian weekend, were emptier than normal due to a blockade from the coronavirus pandemic, offering its attackers the opportunity to strike with fewer people around.
Fakhrizadeh directed Iran’s “Amad” or “Hope” program. Israel and the West have alleged that it was a military operation seeking the viability of building a nuclear weapon in Iran. Tehran has long maintained that its nuclear program is peaceful.
The International Atomic Energy Agency says Iran “carried out activities related to the development of a nuclear explosive device” in a “structured program” until the end of 2003. That was the Amad program, which included work on high explosives. carefully timed powers detonate a nuclear bomb.
Iran also “performed computer modeling of a nuclear explosive device” before 2005 and between 2005 and 2009, the IAEA said. However, the agency said those calculations were “incomplete and fragmented.”
IAEA inspectors now monitor Iranian nuclear sites as part of Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers.
Netanyahu in 2018 gave a presentation in which he revealed what he described as material stolen by Israel from an Iranian nuclear archive.
“A key part of the plan was to form new organizations to continue the work,” Netanyahu claimed in 2018. “So put it Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, director of Project Amad. Remember that name, Fakhrizadeh.”