A London-based Iranian journalist claimed late Sunday that Iran has distributed pictures of four suspects in the killing of top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. The claim, tweeted by Mohamed Ahwaze, also known as M Majed, was quickly picked up by Hebrew media, and was the lead item on the websites of Israel’s two main TV channels in the early hours of Monday morning.
According to the report, Iranian intelligence agents were distributing the photos of the men at hotels across the country and asking hotel owners to immediately inform them if they had seen them.
Ahwaze also reported that Iranian forces had stepped up their presence and patrols near the border with Iraqi Kurdistan, anticipating that the suspects would use that route to try and flee the country.
The claims were made at the same time as the semi-official Fars news site quoted the Intelligence Ministry as saying it had clues to the identity of the attackers who killed Fakhrizadeh — a brigadier general in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and a key figure in the country’s military research-and-development program long regarded by Israel and the US as the head of its rogue nuclear weapons program — and would soon share the information with the public.
Earlier in the day Ahwaze tweeted a claim that 62 people were involved in Friday’s killing, including 12 people who took part in the actual assassination and a logistics team of some 50 others.
He claimed that the attackers first cut off electricity to the area, before detonating a car bomb and then opening fire. “According to Iranian leaks, the leader of the assassination team took Fakhrizadeh out of his car and shot him and made sure he was killed,” he tweeted.
That claim of a 62-person team was dismissed in a report by Israel’s Channel 12 on Sunday evening as an example of “disinformation” surrounding the attack.
ورد الآن : الإستخبارات الإيرانية قامت بتوزيع هذه الصور على جميع الفنادق في إيران بتهمة المشاركة في عمليات إغتيال كبير العلماء النوويين الإيرانيين محسن فخري زاده وطلبت من أصحاب الفنادق إستقبالهم من ثم الإبلاغ عن تواجدهم فوراً. pic.twitter.com/rTLQa8Ngqn
— M.Majed محمد مجيد (@MohamadAhwaze) November 29, 2020
Ahwaze’s report on the alleged suspects came after a leading Iranian news site reported Sunday that the attack was carried out from afar using a remote-controlled machine gun attached to a car.
According to Fars, the entire operation was conducted with no human agents whatsoever, a significantly different description of the attack than had previously been presented. The account was not attributed to official sources and was also not immediately confirmed by Iran.
According to the semi-official Fars outlet, the assault took place over the course of three minutes as Fakhrizadeh traveled with his wife toward the resort town of Absard, east of Tehran.
The operation kicked off when the lead car in Fakhrizadeh’s security detail traveled ahead to inspect his destination, the report said.
At that point, a number of bullets were fired at Fakhrizadeh’s armored car, prompting him to exit the vehicle as he was apparently unaware that he was under attack, thinking that the sound was caused by an accident or some problem with the car, according to Fars news.
The outlet did not specify if those shots were fired from the remote-controlled machine gun or from a different source.
Once Fakhrizadeh exited the vehicle, the remote-controlled machine gun opened fire from roughly 150 meters (500 feet) away, striking him three times, twice in the side and once in his back, severing his spinal cord, the report said. Fakhrizadeh’s bodyguard was also hit by the gunfire. The attacking car, a Nissan, then exploded, the report said.
Fakhrizadeh was evacuated to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Photos and video shared online showed a sedan with bullet holes in the windshield and back window, blood pooled on the asphalt and debris scattered along a stretch of the road.
Until now, reports from Iran indicated that an explosion occurred first, forcing Fakhrizadeh’s car to stop, at which point armed agents opened fire at him and his security detail, killing them, before fleeing the scene.
According to Fars news, Iranian authorities tracked down the owner of the Nissan, who left the country on October 29. The name of the owner was not included in the report.
A number of defense analysts cast doubts on the Fars report, noting that photographs of the scene showed what appeared to be precise gunfire aimed at Fakhrizadeh’s car, which a remote-controlled automatic weapon would be unlikely to produce and that better fits the initial descriptions of armed, trained operatives conducting the raid.
The highly public killing of Fakhrizadeh prompted widespread condemnation from Iran, which explicitly accused Israel of being responsible for the attack and threatened to exact revenge for it.
While Israel remained officially mum on the killing of Fakhrizadeh and its alleged role in it, an Israeli minister publicly praised the results of the operation.
“The assassination in Iran, whoever did it, it serves not only Israel, but the whole region and the world,” Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told the Kan public broadcaster on Sunday.
Iran has suffered several devastating attacks this year, including the killing of top general Qassem Soleimani in a US drone strike in January, and a mysterious explosion and fire that crippled an advanced centrifuge assembly plant at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, which is widely believed to have been an act of sabotage.
Iran’s atomic program has continued its experiments and now enriches a growing uranium stockpile up to the level of 4.5 percent purity, following the US’s 2018 withdrawal from the nuclear deal. That is still far below weapons-grade levels of 90 percent, though experts warn Iran now has enough low-enriched uranium for at least two atomic bombs if it chose to pursue them.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report