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Netanyahu said in 2018: 'Remember that name, Fakhrizadeh'

Head of Iran’s nuclear weapons program is assassinated near Tehran

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh’s car bombed and shot at; adviser to Khamenei blames ‘Zionists,’ vows to ‘descend like lightning on killers’; scientist had been called ‘father of Iranian bomb’

  • Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in an undated photo. (Courtesy)
    Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in an undated photo. (Courtesy)
  • This photo released by the semi-official Fars News Agency shows the scene where Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed in Absard, a small city just east of the capital, Tehran, Iran, Nov. 27, 2020 (Fars News Agency via AP)
    This photo released by the semi-official Fars News Agency shows the scene where Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed in Absard, a small city just east of the capital, Tehran, Iran, Nov. 27, 2020 (Fars News Agency via AP)
  • This photo released by the semi-official Fars News Agency shows the scene where Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed in Absard, a small city just east of the capital, Tehran, Iran, November 27, 2020. (Fars News Agency via AP)
    This photo released by the semi-official Fars News Agency shows the scene where Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed in Absard, a small city just east of the capital, Tehran, Iran, November 27, 2020. (Fars News Agency via AP)

The scientist said by Israel and the US to head Iran’s rogue nuclear weapons program was assassinated Friday in an ambush near the capital Tehran, Iran’s defense ministry said. The ministry confirmed the death of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a professor of physics and an officer in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, after it was widely reported in Iranian media.

Several top Iranian officials indicated they believed Israel was behind the killing in the hours after the attack, with one adviser to the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader vowing revenge. Israel had no comment on the attack, and Israeli TV reports late Friday said the IDF had not been placed on a heightened alert in its wake.

The assassination happened 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 rapid fire, the semiofficial Tasnim news agency said. Israeli TV reports on the incident Friday night said the gunmen emerged in two separate groups, some on motorbikes, and fatally wounded Fakhrizadeh and shot dead three of his bodyguards before escaping.

Fakhrizadeh was evacuated by helicopter and died at a hospital after doctors and paramedics couldn’t revive him.

Photos and video shared online showed a Nissan sedan with bullet holes in the windshield and blood pooled on the road.

This photo released by the semi-official Fars News Agency shows the scene where Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed in Absard, a small city just east of the capital, Tehran, Iran, Friday, Nov. 27, 2020. Parts of image blurred for potentially disturbing imagery (Fars News Agency via AP)

“This Friday afternoon, armed terrorist elements attacked a car carrying Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, head of the Ministry of Defense’s Research and Innovation Organization,” the Iranian defense ministry said. “During the clash between his security team and the terrorists, Mr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was seriously injured and taken to hospital.

“Unfortunately, the medical team did not succeed in reviving him, and a few minutes ago, this manager and scientist, after years of effort and struggle, achieved a high degree of martyrdom.”

The killing risks further raising tensions across the Mideast, nearly a year after Iran and the US stood on the brink of war when an American drone strike killed a top Iranian general in Baghdad. It comes just as US President-elect Joe Biden stands poised to be inaugurated in January and will likely complicate his efforts to return America to a pact aimed at ensuring Iran does not have enough highly enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon.

US President Donald Trump was reported earlier this month to have considered targeting Iran’s nuclear program, but was said to have been talked out such a move, though a report earlier this week said the Israeli army has been preparing for the possibility that Trump will order a strike on Iran before leaving office in January.

Hossein Salami, chief commander of the paramilitary Revolutionary Guards, acknowledged the attack on Fakhrizadeh, tweeting: “Assassinating nuclear scientists is the most violent confrontation to prevent us from reaching modern science.”

Hossein Dehghan, an adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and a presidential candidate in Iran’s 2021 election, issued a warning on Twitter.

“In the last days of their gambling ally’s political life, the Zionists seek to intensify and increase pressure on Iran to wage a full-blown war,” Dehghan wrote, appearing to refer to Trump. “We will descend like lightning on the killers of this oppressed martyr and we will make them regret their actions!”

Gen. Hossein Dehghan, a military adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in Tehran, Iran, November 18, 2020. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted: “Terrorists murdered an eminent Iranian scientist today. This cowardice — with serious indications of Israeli role — shows desperate warmongering of perpetrators.

He called on the international community “to end their shameful double standards & condemn this act of state terror.”

The area around Absard is filled with vacation villas for the Iranian elite with a view of Mount Damavand, the highest peak in the country. Roads on Friday, part of the Iranian weekend, were emptier than normal due to a lockdown over the coronavirus pandemic, offering his attackers a chance to strike with fewer people around.

Fakhrizadeh was named by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2018 as the director of Iran’s nuclear weapons project.

When Netanyahu revealed then that Israel had removed from a warehouse in Tehran a vast archive of Iran’s own material detailing with its nuclear weapons program, he said: “Remember that name, Fakhrizadeh.”

Israel has long been suspected of carrying out a series of targeted killings of Iranian nuclear scientists nearly a decade ago, in a bid to curtail Iran’s nuclear program. It made no comment on the matter Friday. Israeli TV coverage noted that Friday’s attack was far more complex than any of those previous incidents.

In a video uploaded to Twitter Friday shortly after news of the alleged killing emerged, Netanyahu, counting off various achievements of the week, noted that this was “a partial list, as I can’t tell you everything.” However, he may have been referring to his widely reported — though not officially confirmed — visit to Saudi Arabia.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack. However, Iranian media all noted the interest that Netanyahu had previously shown in Fakhrizadeh.

In Washington, an official told CNN the administration was closely following the assassination, which “would be a big deal.”

Fakhrizadeh 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.

This photo released by the semi-official Fars News Agency shows the scene where Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed in Absard, a small city just east of the capital, Tehran, Iran, Friday, Nov. 27, 2020 (Fars News Agency via AP)

The International Atomic Energy Agency says that the “Amad” program ended in the early 2000s. Its inspectors now monitor Iranian nuclear sites.

But Netanyahu said in his 2018 comments that Fakhrizadeh was continuing to lead such efforts secretly under SPND, “an organization inside Iran’s Defense Ministry.”

Israel’s Channel 12 news reported that the 59-year-old Fakhrizadeh was under constant guard, including at the time of his assassination Friday.

An Israeli TV report in May 2018 claimed Israel may have decided not to assassinate Fakhrizadeh in the past because it preferred to keep him alive and watch what he was up to.

“If Iran ever chose to weaponize [enrichment], Fakhrizadeh would be known as the father of the Iranian bomb,” a Western diplomat told the Reuters news agency four years ago. He has often been compared with Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the American nuclear development program in the 1940s.

According to Channel 12, the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency had for years sought to meet with Fakhrizadeh to question him on his activities, but was repeatedly rebuffed by Tehran.

A report on Axios Wednesday claimed that the Israeli army has been preparing for the possibility that US President Donald Trump will order a strike on Iran before leaving office in January.

Citing senior Israeli officials, Axios said there was no specific information that such an attack is imminent, but Israeli leaders believe the US president’s final weeks in the job will be “a very sensitive period.”

The officials said Washington would likely update Israel before carrying out military action against the Islamic Republic.

Trump himself retweeted a posting from Israeli journalist Yossi Melman, an expert on the Israeli Mossad intelligence service, about the killing. Melman’s tweet called the killing a “major psychological and professional blow for Iran.”

In January the US assassinated Qassem Soleimani, the powerful head of Iran’s Quds Force, in an airstrike at Baghdad International Airport, nearly sparking a larger conflict between the countries.

In this Sept. 18, 2016 file photo released by an official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, center, attends a meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Revolutionary Guard commanders in Tehran, Iran. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

The assassination of Fakhrizadeh comes three months after al-Qaeda’s second-in-command was gunned down on a Tehran street, in an attack that the New York Times earlier this month reported was carried out by Israeli agents at the behest of the United States. Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, who used the nom de guerre Abu Muhammad al-Masri, was accused of being one of the chief planners of devastating attacks on two US embassies in Africa in 1998, in which 224 people were killed, and of orchestrating a 2002 attack on an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa, Kenya which killed 13 and injured 80.

Intelligence expert Ronen Bergman told Israel’s Channel 10 news in 2019 that given that many of Fakhrizadeh’s close aides had been killed over the years in assassinations linked to the Mossad, it was “reasonable to assume” that he would also have been “picked out” for assassination by the Mossad over the years.

Since Fakhhrizadeh is still alive, said Bergman at the time, “one can say apparently there was an assassination plan.” And apparently it was rejected during the years when Ehud Olmert was prime minister, Bergman added, choosing his words carefully given the limitations of military censorship when it comes to matters of national security.

“Apparently, there were those who came to Olmert… and said, listen, there is a danger that the operation will fail; there is a danger that the forces on the ground will be discovered.”

Olmert evidently chose to heed those concerns and not approve such an operation, said Bergman, a well-connected journalist on Israeli intelligence and security who recently published a landmark book, “Rise and Kill First,” on “the secret history of Israel’s targeted assassinations.”

Olmert was prime minister until 2009, when Netanyahu succeeded him.

Israel has never acknowledged assassinating people involved in the Iranian nuclear program.

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