Top Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, described by Western officials as the “father” of the Iran’s atomic weapons program, was reportedly in the crosshairs of Israel’s Mossad spy agency for years before his assassination Friday outside Tehran.
Fakhrizadeh, 59, was a physicist, an officer in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and a professor at the Imam Hussein University in Tehran. Several reports said he was born in the Shiite holy city of Qom in central Iran.
Little is known about the shadowy scientist, but 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 has long maintained its nuclear program is peaceful.
Owing to his alleged work on nuclear weapons, Fakhrizadeh was long a top target of the Mossad, The New York Times said. Unnamed intelligence officials told the Times that Israel was behind Fakhrizadeh’s killing, and Iranian officials accused Jerusalem of the assassination on Friday. There is no public evidence of Israeli involvement and Israel did not immediately comment on the killing.
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.
An Israeli TV report in 2018 claimed Israel may have decided to not assassinate him in the past because it preferred to keep him alive and watch his actions.
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.
Iran for years reportedly rebuffed requests by the International Atomic Energy Agency to speak to Fakhrizadeh, arguing he was an academic. However, a 2007 US intelligence report said his academic post was a cover story, according to the Times, and the next year he was sanctioned by the US for “for engaging in activities and transactions that contributed to the development of Iran’s nuclear program.”
The Mossad and the CIA both started tracking Fakhrizadeh in 2006, Channel 12 reported.
An IAEA report in 2011 identified him as a leading figure in Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons technology.
Both Israel and the United States accused him of spearheading his country’s rogue nuclear weapons program and in 2018 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu named Fakhrizadeh as the director of Iran’s nuclear weapons project, and insisted he was continuing to lead such efforts.
When Netanyahu revealed then that Israel had removed from a warehouse in Tehran a vast archive of Iran’s own material detailing its nuclear weapons program, he said: “Remember that name, Fakhrizadeh.”
Experts differed on how his death will impact Iran’s alleged weapons program.
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.
Fakhrizadeh was “one of the most closely protected people in Iran,” constantly surrounded by bodyguards, the network reported.
“It was clear he was a figure who would be on the hit list there,” Sima Shine, an Iran expert at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, told Channel 12. “He is a charismatic and admired figure in Iran but the moment he disappears, the nuclear program won’t stop and his killing won’t prevent nuclear [development].”
An unnamed Israeli official told Kan news Friday, however, that “without Fakhrizadeh it will be very hard for Iran to advance its military [nuclear] program.”
“Fakhrizadeh likely knew more about Iran’s nuclear program than any living human. Losing his leadership, knowledge and institutional memory is undoubtedly a blow to the Islamic Republic,” Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told The Washington Post.
Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also told the paper: “Plenty of people in the program can design a warhead now if needed. So Iran may now have more motivation to weaponize, without attenuating its ability to do so.”
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. Unnamed intelligence officials told the New York Times that Israel was behind Fakhrizadeh’s killing.
Iranian officials pointed the finger at the Jewish state for the hit and vowed revenge. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif claimed there were “serious indications of [an] Israeli role” in the assassination.
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.
Agencies contributed to this report.