The European Union on Saturday condemned the killing of a top Iranian nuclear scientist a day earlier as a “criminal act” and urged calm and restraint as officials in Tehran blamed Israel for the assassination and vowed to respond.
“In these uncertain times, it is more important than ever for all parties to remain calm and exercise maximum restraint in order to avoid escalation which cannot be in anyone’s interest,” said Peter Sano, lead spokesperson for the external affairs division of the European Union, based in Brussels.
“This is a criminal act and runs counter to the principle of respect for human rights the EU stands for. The High Representative expresses his condolences to the family members of the individuals who were killed, while wishing a prompt recovery to any other individuals who may have been injured,” he added in a press statement.
The announcement came a day after Iran’s top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, linked to Tehran’s military nuclear program, was killed on Friday in Absard, a village just east of the capital that is a retreat for the Iranian elite. Iranian state television said an old truck with explosives hidden under a load of wood blew up near a sedan carrying Fakhrizadeh.
As Fakhrizadeh’s sedan stopped, at least five gunmen emerged and raked the car with gunfire, the semiofficial Tasnim news agency said.
Fakhrizadeh died at a hospital after doctors and paramedics couldn’t revive him. Others wounded included Fakhrizadeh’s bodyguards. Photos and video shared online showed a Nissan sedan with bullet holes in the windshield and blood pooled on the road.
It was not yet clear how many people died in the ambush.
US officials and most world leaders remained mum on the slaying as of Saturday mid-day, while the UN called for restraint and the former head of the CIA said the assassination was “highly reckless.”
Germany’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Saturday urging restraint and urged “all parties to refrain from any steps that could lead to a further escalation of the situation,” Reuters reported.
Earlier Saturday, both Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani vowed to respond to the slaying, with Rouhani directly blaming Israel for the assassination.
Rouhani said that Fakhrizadeh’s death would not stop its nuclear program, something Khamenei said as well. Iran’s civilian nuclear program has continued its experiments and now enriches uranium up to 4.5 percent, far below weapons-grade levels of 90%.
The killing threatens to renew tensions between the US and Iran in the waning days of President Donald Trump’s term, just as President-elect Joe Biden has suggested his administration could return to Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers from which Trump earlier withdrew. The Pentagon announced early Saturday that it sent the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier back into the Mideast.
In a statement, Khamenei called Fakhrizadeh “the country’s prominent and distinguished nuclear and defensive scientist.”
He said Iran’s first priority after the killing was the “definitive punishment of the perpetrators and those who ordered it.” He did not elaborate.
Rouhani said Iran would “respond to the assassination of Martyr Fakhrizadeh in a proper time.” He added: “The Iranian nation is smarter than falling into the trap of the Zionists. They are thinking to create chaos.”
The attack comes just days before the 10-year anniversary of the killing of Iranian nuclear scientist Majid Shahriari that Tehran also blamed on Israel. That and other targeted killings happened at the time that the so-called Stuxnet virus, believed to be an Israeli and American creation, destroyed Iranian centrifuges.
Those assaults occurred at the height of Western fears over Iran’s nuclear program. Tehran long has insisted its program is peaceful. However, Fakhrizadeh led Iran’s so-called AMAD program that Israel and the West have alleged was a military operation looking at the feasibility of building a nuclear weapon. The International Atomic Energy Agency says that “structured program” ended in 2003.
IAEA inspectors monitor Iranian nuclear sites as part of the now-unraveling nuclear deal with world powers, which saw Tehran limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
After Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from the deal, Iran has abandoned all those limits. Experts now believe Iran has enough low-enriched uranium to make at least two nuclear weapons if it chose to pursue the bomb. Meanwhile, an advanced centrifuge assembly plant at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility exploded in July in what Tehran now calls a sabotage attack