Iran’s most senior nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh has been assassinated near the capital Tehran, the country’s defence ministry has confirmed.
Fakhrizadeh died in hospital after an attack in Absard, in Damavand county.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, has condemned the killing “as an act of state terror”.
Western intelligence agencies view Fakhrizadeh as being behind Iran’s covert nuclear weapons programme.
“If Iran ever chose to weaponise (enrichment), Fakhrizadeh would be known as the father of the Iranian bomb,” one Western diplomat told Reuters news agency in 2014.
News of the killing comes amid fresh concern about the increased amount of enriched uranium that Iran is producing. Enriched uranium is a vital component for both civil nuclear power generation and military nuclear weapons.
Iran insists its nuclear programme is exclusively for peaceful purposes.
Between 2010 and 2012, four Iranian nuclear scientists were assassinated and Iran has accused Israel of complicity in the killings.
Fakhrizadeh’s name was specifically mentioned in Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s presentation about Iran’s nuclear programme in May 2018.
The killing has led to speculation that it could provoke confrontation between Iran and its foes in the last weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency.
The death of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh will also complicate any effort by US President-elect Joe Biden to revive the detente of Barack Obama’s presidency.
Iran pointed the finger at Israel, while implying the killing had the blessing of the departing Trump. Zarif wrote on Twitter of “serious indications of (an) Israeli role”.
The military adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed to “strike as thunder at the killers of this oppressed martyr”.
“In the last days of the political life of their … ally (Trump), the Zionists seek to intensify pressure on Iran and create a full-blown war,” Hossein Dehghan tweeted.
There was silence from foreign capitals. Israel declined to comment. In the United States, the White House, Pentagon, State Department and CIA all declined to comment, as did Biden’s transition team.
Robert Malley, who served as Iran adviser to Obama and has informally advised Biden’s team, said Fakhrizadeh’s killing was among a series of moves that have occurred during Trump’s final weeks that appear aimed at making it harder for Biden to re-engage with Iran.
“One purpose is simply to inflict as much damage to Iran economically and to its nuclear programme while they can, and the other could be to complicate President Biden’s ability to resume diplomacy and resume the nuclear deal,” said Malley, adding that he would not speculate on who was behind the killing.
A US official confirmed earlier this month that Trump had asked military aides for a plan for a possible strike on Iran. Trump decided against it at the time because of the risk of a wider Middle East conflict.
Last January, Trump ordered a US drone strike in Baghdad that killed Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military commander. Iran retaliated by firing missiles at a US base in Iraq, the closest the two foes have come to war in decades.
Fakhrizadeh attacked in vehicle
In a statement today, Iran’s defence ministry said: “Armed terrorists targeted a vehicle carrying Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, head of the ministry’s research and innovation organisation.
“After a clash between the terrorists and his bodyguards, Mr Fakhrizadeh was severely injured and rushed to hospital.
“Unfortunately, the medical team’s efforts to save him were unsuccessful and minutes ago he passed away.”
Fars news agency earlier reported there was a car explosion in Absard town, with witnesses reporting that “three to four individuals, who are said to have been terrorists, were killed”.
Promise of revenge
“Terrorists murdered an eminent Iranian scientist today,” Iran’s foreign minister said in a tweet.
“This cowardice – with serious indications of Israeli role – shows desperate warmongering of perpetrators.”
Zarif called on the international community to “condemn this act of state terror”.
Iran’s government congratulated Fakhrizadeh on his “martyrdom”.
The commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has said that Iran will avenge the killing of the scientist.
“Assassination of nuclear scientists is the most obvious violation of the global hegemony to prevent our access to modern sciences,” said Major General Hossein Salami.
Who was Mohsen Fakhrizadeh?
Fakhrizadeh is the most renowned Iranian nuclear scientist and a senior officer of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
He has long been spoken about by Western security sources as extremely powerful and instrumental in Iran’s nuclear programme.
According to secret documents obtained by Israel in 2018, he led a programme to create nuclear weapons.
“Remember that name,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said as he identified Fakhrizedeh as the head scientist in the programme.
In 2015, the New York Times compared him to J Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who directed the Manhattan Project that during World War II produced the first atomic weapons.
Fakhrizadeh was born in 1958 in city of Qom, Iran, according to a 2011 report published by Iranian opposition group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
A professor of physics, he is said to have led Project Amad, the alleged covert programme that was established in 1989 to research the potential for building a nuclear bomb. It was shut down in 2003, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The IAEA has long wanted to speak to him as part of its investigations into Iran’s nuclear programme.
Suspicions that Iran was using the programme as a cover to develop a nuclear bomb prompted the EU, US and UN to impose crippling sanctions in 2010.
In 2015, Iran reached a deal with six powers – the US, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany – that saw it limit its nuclear activities in return for sanctions relief.
Israel has long been opposed to the deal and US President Donald Trump abandoned it in May 2018. However, Joe Biden has pledged to re-engage with Iran when he takes over the presidency in January.
– BBC / Reuters