The attack that killed the alleged architect of Iran’s nuclear weapons program on Friday was carried out from afar using a remote-controlled machine gun attached to a car, a leading Iranian news site reported Sunday.
According to the semi-officials Fars news site, the entire operation was conducted with no human agents whatsoever, a significantly different description of the attack than has been presented until now. The account was not attributed to official sources and was not immediately confirmed by Iran.
According to the outlet, the assault took place over the course of three minutes as Mohsen 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 — 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. 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. His wife survived the attack, according to Iranian media.
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.
Other news outlets have also published contradictory accounts of the killing, including claims that dozens of Israeli operatives were involved.
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. The United Nations and European Union criticized the operation — without naming Israel — saying it inflamed tensions in the region. Some American Democrats also spoke out against the raid, saying it appeared to be an effort to hobble efforts by US President-elect Joe Biden to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal, a move that Jerusalem staunchly opposes along with several Sunni Arab states.
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. Tehran officially denies plans to develop atomic weapons, maintaining its nuclear program is for civilian purposes, though a trove of Iranian documents stolen from Tehran by the Mossad, which where revealed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2018, showed plans by Iran to attach a nuclear warhead to a ballistic missile.
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.
Fakhrizadeh was named by 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.”
In a video uploaded to Twitter on Friday shortly after news of the alleged killing emerged, 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.” According to Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen, Netanyahu was referring to his widely reported — though not officially confirmed — visit to Saudi Arabia.
Israel was bracing for possible Iranian retaliation, putting embassies on high alert. The Israel Defense Forces, however, remained in its normal routine in apparent indication that it did not anticipate an Iranian retaliation in the form of an immediate military strike. At the same time, the IDF said in a statement that it was “aware of the possible developments in the region” and would “maintain full preparedness against any expression of violence against us.”
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.