Israel was responsible for Friday’s assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, The New York Times reported, citing three unnamed intelligence officials.
The report came after several Iranian officials pointed the finger at the Jewish state for the hit on the man Israel and Western intelligence officials have identified as the leading figure in Tehran’s nuclear weapons program.
The Times report said it was not clear how much Washington knew ahead of the attack, though it noted that Israel and the US work closely on issues pertaining to Iran.
An unnamed Israeli official told Kan news Friday that “without Fakhrizadeh it will be very hard for Iran to advance its military [nuclear] program.”
Iran has never admitted to having a nuclear weapons program, though Israel and Western nations dismiss such denials. Though Iran ostensibly froze all nuclear development as part of its 2015 deal with world powers, Israel has said Fakhrizadeh secretly continued to work on arms development and would have been a key figure in any Iranian push for the bomb.
The killing of Fakhrizadeh is the latest in a series of assassinations of nuclear scientists in Iran in recent years that the Islamic republic has blamed on Israel. .
In Washington, an official told CNN the administration was closely following the assassination, which “would be a big deal.”
In an interview with Fox News earlier this week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo noted: “The real tools of creating a nuclear weapon are capacity, smart people, money. Those are the things that help you build out a nuclear weapons program.”
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.
The former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, Patrick Mulroy, told the New York Times that Fakhrizadeh was “their senior-most nuclear scientist and was believed to be responsible for Iran’s covert nuclear program.
“He was also a senior officer in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and that will magnify Iran’s desire to respond by force.”
The United States slapped sanctions on Fakhrizadeh in 2008 for “engaging in activities and transactions that contributed to the development of Iran’s nuclear program,” and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once described him as the father of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Israel declined to immediately comment on the killing of Fakhrizadeh, who Netanyahu once called out in a news conference on Iran’s nuclear weapons program, saying: “Remember that name.”
According to Channel 12, Fakhrizadeh was not only “the father of Iran’s nuclear weapons program,” but the man determined to ensure that “he delivered the bomb” for the ayatollahs. He was also a ballistic missiles expert, closely involved in Iran’s missile development, it said.
The killing 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 gunfire, the semiofficial Tasnim news agency said. Israeli TV reports on the incident Friday night said the gunmen 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.
Fakhrizadeh 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.
Top Iranian officials earlier pointed to Israel as the likely culprit.
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif claimed there were “serious indications of [an] Israeli role” in the assassination.
“Terrorists murdered an eminent Iranian scientist today. This cowardice — with serious indications of Israeli role — shows desperate warmongering of perpetrators,” Zarif wrote on Twitter. He also called on the international community to “end their shameful double standards and condemn this act of state terror.”
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 US President Donald Trump. “We will descend like lightning on the killers of this oppressed martyr and we will make them regret their actions!”
State television described Fakhrizadeh as one “of our country’s nuclear scientists” and said Israel “had an old and deep enmity towards him.”
Iran’s armed forces chief of staff Major General Mohammad Bagheri called Fakhrizdeh’s death “a bitter and heavy blow to the country’s defense system” and warned of “severe revenge” for those behind it, accusing “the malicious Zionist entity of committing [the] brutal act.”
“We assure [Iranians] that we will not rest until we have chased and punished” those involved, Bagheri said in tweets.
Hezbollah deputy leader Naim Qassem sent his condolences to Iran, stating that “The response to this crime is in the hands of Iran. It is a matter of honor.”
He added: “This action is part of the war on Iran, on the region and on Palestine.”
Fakhrizadeh’s assassination comes less than two months before Joe Biden is to take office as US president. Biden has promised a return to diplomacy with Iran after four hawkish years under Trump, who withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and began reimposing crippling sanctions.
Trump said at the time that the deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, did not offer sufficient guarantees to stop Tehran from acquiring an atomic bomb. Iran has always denied it wants such a weapon.
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.
Trump himself on Friday 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.”
Ellie Geranmayeh of the European Council on International Relations said on Twitter that the “objective behind the killing wasn’t to hinder [Iran’s] nuclear program but to undermine diplomacy.”
She noted that recent high-level visits by US officials to Israel and Saudi Arabia “raised flags something being cooked up” to “provoke Iran & complicate Biden’s diplomatic push.”
The New York Times reported earlier in November that al-Qaeda’s second-in-command was secretly shot and killed in Tehran by two Israeli operatives on a motorcycle at Washington’s behest.
The senior leader, who went by the nom de guerre Abu Muhammad al-Masri, was killed in August along with his daughter, Miriam, the widow of Osama bin Laden’s son Hamza, the Times said, citing intelligence sources.
Iran said the report was based on “made-up information” and reaffirmed its denial of the presence of any of the group’s members in the Islamic republic.
Iran’s state news IRNA and Mehr news agency at the time reported a similar incident and identified the victims as Habib Dawoud, a 58-year-old Lebanese history teacher, and his daughter Maryam, 27, without giving further details.
The killing comes just days before the 10-year anniversary of the killing of Iranian nuclear scientist Majid Shahriari, which Tehran also blamed on Israel. Those targeted killings came alongside the so-called Stuxnet virus, believed to be an Israeli and American creation, that destroyed Iranian centrifuges.
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.
The International Atomic Energy Agency says Iran “carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device” in a “structured program” through the end of 2003. That was the Amad program, which included work on the carefully timed high explosives needed to detonate a nuclear bomb.
Iran also “conducted computer modeling of a nuclear explosive device” before 2005 and between 2005 and 2009, the IAEA has said. The agency said, however, that those calculations were “incomplete and fragmented.”
According to Channel 12, the IAEA had for years sought to meet with Fakhrizadeh to question him on his activities, but was repeatedly rebuffed by Tehran.
Netanyahu asserted in 2018 that Fakhrizadeh continued to lead Iran’s nuclear weapons efforts, despite the 2015 nuclear deal meant to prevent Tehran from constructing such weapons.
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.
Fakhrizadeh was “one of the most closely protected people in Iran,” constantly surrounded by bodyguards, Channel 12 said Friday.
Despite, the threats of Iranian retaliation, so far the Israeli army has not been placed on any heightened alert in the wake of the incident, Channel 12 said.