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Rouhani blames ‘mercenary’ Israel for killing nuclear scientist, vows revenge

Israel said to raise security at embassies as Iranian president vows assassination will not go ‘unanswered’; protesters call for war with US over ambush

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani speaks in a meeting in Tehran, Iran, November 8, 2020. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani speaks in a meeting in Tehran, Iran, November 8, 2020. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani accused Israel of being behind the Friday killing of the country’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the alleged mastermind of Iran’s rogue nuclear weapons program, and vowed to avenge his death.

Israel placed its embassies and legations around the world on a heightened security alert amid concerns of Iranian reprisals, Israel’s Channel 12 News reported Saturday afternoon. Israel has made no official comment on the assassination.

“Once again, the evil hands of global arrogance were stained with the blood of the mercenary usurper Zionist regime,” Rouhani said in a statement, Reuters reported early Saturday, citing state television.

Iran generally uses the term “global arrogance” to refer to the United States.

“The assassination of martyr [Mohsen] Fakhrizadeh shows our enemies’ despair and the depth of their hatred… His martyrdom will not slow down our achievements,” he added.

Rouhani said Iran was “smarter than to fall in the trap of the conspiracy set by the Zionists” whom, he said, “are thinking of creating chaos, but they should know that we have read their hands and they will not succeed.”

He also vowed a response. “Iran’s enemies should know that the people [and officials] of Iran are braver than to leave this criminal act unanswered,” Rouhani said. “In due time, they will answer for this crime.”

Fakhrizadeh was killed on Friday in an ambush in Absard, a village just east of the capital 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.

A photo released by Iran’s 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)

The area around Absard, which has a view of Mount Damavand, the country’s highest peak, is filled with vacation villas. 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.

Iranian officials have since pointed the finger at Israel. The country’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, alleged the killing bore “serious indications” of an Israeli role, but did not elaborate.

“Terrorists murdered an eminent Iranian scientist today. This cowardice — with serious indications of Israeli role — shows desperate warmongering of perpetrators,” Zarif wrote on Twitter.

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)

Hossein Dehghan, an adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini and a presidential candidate in Iran’s 2021 election, also blamed Israel — and issued a warning.

“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’s last days in office. “We will descend like lightning on the killers of this oppressed martyr and we will make them regret their actions!”

In this picture released by the official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, right, sits in a meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran, Iran, Jan. 23, 2019. Two others are unidentified. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

On Friday night, a small demonstration broke out briefly in Tehran outside Rouhani’s residence, with dozens of hard-line protesters calling for war with the United States following the assassination.

The protesters, a crowd of dozens of men, shouted “no to submission, no to concession with America, only war with America,” the New York Times reported on Friday citing videos shown on Iranian TV and posted to social media channels. They also held up signs that read “silence is permission for more assassinations” and “Mr. President, they killed your minister’s adviser. Stop negotiation.”

The protesters also called for expelling international inspectors currently in the country to monitor Iran’s nuclear program, according to the report.

Rouhani and his administration have been facing pressure from hard-liners in Iran to take a more combative approach with the US, with Khamenei saying earlier this week that there were no hopes of “an opening with the West” and that foreigners cannot be trusted. This remark came after Rouhani signaled a readiness to engage with US President-elect Joe Biden over a possible return to a nuclear deal between Tehran, the US, and other world powers, negotiated in 2015 under the administration of president Barack Obama.

That deal, which saw Iran limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions, has entirely unraveled after Trump withdrew from the accord in 2018. Trump also launched a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran with sanctions that plunged its economy into a deep recession.

The two countries have twice come to the brink of war since mid-2019, including after an American drone strike killed top Iranian commander, Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, in Baghdad.

Biden’s win at the polls earlier this month had signaled a possible change. On Wednesday, Rouhani called for Biden’s incoming administration to restore the “situation that prevailed” before Trump came to power.

“Iran and the US can both decide and declare that they will return to the situation that prevailed until January 20, 2017,” Rouhani told his cabinet, referring to the date when the outgoing US president assumed office. “If there is such a will among the future American leaders, I think that it will be very easy to resolve” numerous problems, Rouhani said.

The AMAD program

The attack comes just days before the 10-year anniversary of the killing of Iranian nuclear scientist Majid Shahriari that Tehran also blamed on Israel. That and other targeted killings happened at the time that the so-called Stuxnet virus, believed to be an Israeli and American creation, destroyed Iranian centrifuges.

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. Tehran long has maintained its nuclear program is only for civilian purposes.

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 an implosion-style 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.”

IAEA inspectors now monitor Iranian nuclear sites as part of the now-unraveling nuclear deal with world powers. Experts believe Iran has enough low-enriched uranium to make at least two nuclear weapons if it chose to pursue the bomb. Meanwhile, an advanced centrifuge assembly plant at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility exploded in July in what Tehran now calls a sabotage attack.

Fakhrizadeh, born in 1958, had been sanctioned by the UN Security Council and the US for his work on AMAD. Iran always described him as a university physics professor. A member of the Revolutionary Guard, Fakhrizadeh had been seen in pictures in meetings attended by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a sign of his power.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands in front of a picture of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who he named as the head of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, April 30, 2018 (YouTube screenshot)

In recent years, US sanctions lists name him as heading Iran’s Organization for Defensive Innovation and Research. The State Department described that organization last year as working on “dual-use research and development activities, of which aspects are potentially useful for nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons delivery systems.”

Iran’s mission to the UN, meanwhile, described Fakhrizadeh’s recent work as “development of the first indigenous COVID-19 test kit” and overseeing Tehran’s efforts at making a possible coronavirus vaccine.

In 2018, Netanyahu gave a presentation in which he unveiled what he described as material stolen by Israel from an Iranian nuclear archive.

“A key part of the plan was to form new organizations to continue the work,” Netanyahu alleged. “This is how Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, head of Project AMAD, put it. Remember that name, Fakhrizadeh.”

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