The assassination of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons mastermind Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was the highpoint of a lengthy Israeli strategic plan to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program, and deprives the Islamic Republic of an irreplaceable source of knowledge, Israeli television reported Saturday.
An unnamed Western intelligence source told Channel 12 the killing of the nuclear physicist, described in the past as the “father” of Iran’s project to develop nuclear weapons, was the “pinnacle” of Israel’s long-term plans.
Channel 13 reported that Fakhrizadeh had been a target of several Israeli prime ministers as well as several recent directors of the Mossad spy agency.
Fakhrizadeh died in a bombing and shooting attack outside Tehran Friday.
Meanwhile, Israel was bracing for possible Iranian retaliation, as Iranian officials and US media asserted that the Jewish state was behind the hit. Israel has not officially commented on the matter.
Channel 12 said Israel “knows that Iran will respond” to the killing, without citing a source.
The matter of how Tehran might react remained up for debate, with pundits suggesting various scenarios: ramping up its nuclear program and enrichment work while abandoning international treaties; launching a major attack on Israel using missiles or other means; attacks on Israeli embassies or Israeli and Jewish targets around the world; attacks on Israeli ships; or attacks via its proxies along Israel’s borders in Gaza, Lebanon and Syria.
TV reports said Israel had raised its alert level in embassies around the world, and Jewish communities across the globe were taking precautions.
Israel’s security cabinet was set to convene Sunday for a meeting that had been scheduled in advance. There has been no word so far of the Israeli military raising its alertness level along the country’s borders.
The New York Times speculated Saturday that the main goal of the assassination was actually to impede the incoming US administration’s ability to reach a diplomatic solution to the conflict with Iran. US President-elect Joe Biden has stated his intention to reenter the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran, which has largely disintegrated since President Donald Trump left the deal in 2018.
Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department nonproliferation official, tweeted: “The reason for assassinating Fakhrizadeh wasn’t to impede Iran’s war potential, it was to impede diplomacy.”
Amos Yadlin, the former head of Israeli military intelligence and the current head of the Institute for National Security Studies think tank, told Channel 12: “Whoever made this decision knows that there are 55 more days in which the White House has someone who sees the Iranian threat the way they do… Biden is a different story.”
Yadlin also speculated that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Israel earlier this month may have been connected to Friday’s killing.
“Apparently Pompeo didn’t come here to drink wine at the Psagot winery,” he said dryly.
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.
According to the New York Times, while some in Iran’s leadership prefer to see how things develop under the Biden administration, pressure is growing from hardliners to respond forcefully following Fakhrizadeh’s killing. Such a response could lead to an escalation that would see the outgoing Trump administration carry out fresh military action and lead to a far larger conflict.
Robert Malley, a former member of the US National Security Council who was one of the negotiators of the 2015 deal, told the paper he believed “the center of gravity in Iran is still with those who want to wait until Biden is president.”
Little comment has been made by Israeli officials in the wake of Fakrizadeh’s killing. Tzachi Hanegbi, a minister from Netanyahu’s Likud party, said Saturday he had “no idea” who carried out Friday’s assassination, though he added that it had “really embarrassed” Iran.
In a video uploaded to Twitter Friday shortly after news of the alleged killing emerged, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, counting off various achievements of the week, noted that this was “a partial list, as I can’t tell you everything… It’s all for you, citizens of Israel, for our country. It’s a week of achievements, and there’ll be more.” However, he may have been referring to his widely reported — though not officially confirmed — visit to Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, opposition leader Yair Lapid on Saturday bristled at European condemnation of the hit, saying “the fact that the European Union is condemning the justified assassination of the Iranian nuclear scientist instead of [condemning] Iran’s efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction and export terrorism all over the world represents moral bankruptcy and abject cowardice.”
On Saturday night, the family of Fakhrizadeh gathered at a mosque in central Tehran for a service, a website associated with Iranian state TV reported. The scientist’s body lay in a flag-draped, open coffin, his eyes closed. Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s chief justice and a leading Shiite cleric, offered prayers over his body.
His funeral was set to take place on Monday.
After years of being in the shadows, the image of Fakhrizadeh suddenly was to be seen everywhere in Iranian media, as his widow spoke on state television and officials publicly demanded revenge on Israel for the scientist’s slaying.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani accused Israel of being behind the killing of the top nuclear scientist.
“Once again, the evil hands of global arrogance were stained with the blood of the mercenary usurper Zionist regime,” Rouhani said in a statement. Iran generally uses the term “global arrogance” to refer to the United States.
“The assassination of martyr Fakhrizadeh shows our enemies’ despair and the depth of their hatred… His martyrdom will not slow down our achievements,” he added.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged “punishing” those behind the assassination, adding that his work must be carried on.
Iran’s civilian 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’s still far below weapons-grade levels of 90%, though experts warn Iran now has enough low-enriched uranium for at least two atomic bombs if it chose to pursue them.
Khamenei called for “following up on this crime and certainly punishing the perpetrators and those responsible, and… continuing the scientific and technical efforts of this martyr in all of the fields he was working in,” according to a statement on the supreme leader’s official website.
Iranian 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.
Hossein Dehghan, an adviser to 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!”
On Saturday the head of the Hamas terror group Ismail Haniyeh phoned Zarif to condemn the killing, saying it “reflects a criminal mentality that allows murder in broad daylight. The policy of assassinations, just as it didn’t succeed with the resistance in Palestine, will fail with Iran and the entire… resistance axis.”
Friday and Saturday also saw protests against Israel and the US in Iran in the wake of the killing, with demonstrators burning Israeli and American flags, as well as photos of US President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden.
Fakhrizadeh’s widow appeared unnamed on state television in a black chador, saying his death would spark a thousand others to take up his work.
“He wanted to get martyred and his wish came true,” she said.
Fakhrizadeh was killed on Friday in an ambush in Absard, a village just east of Tehran, as his vehicle neared a truck that exploded when he approached. Local reports then described a barrage of automatic gunfire as gunmen emerged from a nearby car. A firefight erupted between the assassins and Fakhrizadeh’s bodyguards. The attackers wounded Fakhrizadeh and killed at least three of the guards before escaping.
Photos and video shared online showed a Nissan sedan with bullet holes in the windshield, blood pooled on the asphalt and debris scattered along a stretch of the road.
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.
Fakhrizadeh was named by 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.”