An unnamed Israeli official told the New York Times on Saturday that the world should thank Israel for the assassination of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons mastermind Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, even as Jerusalem hasn’t officially claimed responsibility for the operation.
The senior official, who according to the report was involved for years in tracking Fakhrizadeh for Israel, also said the country would continue to take any necessary steps against Tehran’s nuclear program.
Brookings Institution researcher Bruce Riedel, a former official at the Central Intelligence Agency with experience in Israel, told the US newspaper that Jerusalem was showing extraordinary levels of ability in striking at key individuals in enemy territory.
“It’s unprecedented,” Riedel said. “And it shows no sign of being effectively countered by the Iranians.”
Riedel also said that Israel had used its close ties with countries neighboring Iran, such as Azerbaijan, for surveillance and recruitment of operatives, noting the Azeri use of Israeli-made drones in its recent conflict with Armenia, which is presumably a facet of that relationship.
Riedel said the killing of Fakhrizadeh, who died on Friday in a bombing and shooting attack outside Tehran that has been widely attributed to Israel, could be an indication that after a hiatus, the Jewish state was reactivating its network of operatives made up of Iranian immigrants to Israel and Iranian collaborators.
“I think it is a signal that the game is afoot, or coming,” the former intelligence official said.
The assassination of 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.
Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told the Kan public broadcaster on Sunday that the assassination of Fakhrizadeh was a positive thing for the world.
“The assassination in Iran, whoever did it, it serves not only Israel, but the whole region and the world,” Steinitz said.
There has been little formal comment from Israeli officials on the assassination, but 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.
Opposition MK Ram Ben-Barak of the Yesh Atid party, who formerly served as deputy director of the Mossad intelligence agency, said on Sunday that he was concerned by the leaking of information.
“I am very upset about what they are doing with this whole operation,” Ben-Barak told Army Radio. “The greatness of this campaign is in its secrecy, but there are deliberate leaks, as also happened on the flight to Saudi Arabia. It leaves me sleepless that there is a prime minister who only consults with those who are closest to him.”
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.
An opinion piece published by a hardline Iranian newspaper on Sunday suggested Iran should attack the northern Israeli port city of Haifa if Israel were indeed responsible for the killing of Fakhrizadeh.
Though the Kayhan newspaper has long argued for aggressive retaliation for operations targeting Iran, Sunday’s opinion piece went further, suggesting any assault be carried out in a way that destroys facilities and “also causes heavy human casualties.”
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.
The matter of how Tehran might react remained up for debate in Israel, 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.
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.
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 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.
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.”