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Explosives, machine guns and hit squad: The killing of Iranian nuclear mastermind

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The hit squad behind last week’s deadly attack on the man long thought to be the mastermind of the Iran’s alleged military nuclear programme left nothing to chance.

As nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh’s black Nissan sedan car approached a boulevard in the Damavand region, about 60km from the capital Tehran, an automatic machine gun, installed inside a blue pick-up truck parked under an electric transmitter, began firing.

The pick-up truck, packed with explosives, was then detonated by remote control. Assailants then opened fire, according to Fereydoon Abbasi-Davani, a nuclear scientist who survived an attempt on his life in 2010, and domestic media. Javad Mogouei, a documentary maker close to hardliners, said there were as many as 12 attackers, including those on motorbikes, in a Hyundai SUV as well as hidden snipers.

Iran has blamed Israel for the assassination of Fakhrizadeh. The dramatic attack at the heart of the regime has escalated tensions in a fraught period as US president Donald Trump prepares to make way for president-elect Joe Biden, who is keen to restart talks over the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and global powers.

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Mr Trump abandoned the historic accord in 2018 and imposed crippling sanctions on the Islamic republic. Tehran then ramped up its nuclear activity, increasing its stockpile of enriched uranium by 12 times more than the levels permitted under the accord. Iran has always denied that it has a military nuclear programme but successive Israeli governments have accused Tehran of trying to develop atomic weapons capability.

Israel vehemently opposes the resumption of talks between the Islamic republic and the US. Iran has promised revenge for what it called a state act of terror.

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Iran has never taken direct action against Israel and President Hassan Rouhani said this revenge would happen “at the right time and appropriately” but that Iran was “intelligent and wise enough not to be trapped in the Zionists’ plot”. This is the second high-profile assassination this year after an American drone killed Iran’s most powerful military commander Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad. In the wake of that attack, Iran fired missiles at an Iraqi base hosting US troops but there were no deaths.

The head of Iran’s defence ministry’s Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research, Fakhrizadeh was a shadowy figure.

Few pictures of him are available in domestic media and there are hardly any records of public speeches. Most Iranians first heard of him when the US put him on the sanctions list in 2008.

In May 2018, after Israeli intelligence agency Mossad made public that it had spirited away Iran’s nuclear archives from a warehouse in Tehran, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly pointed to Fakhrizadeh, as a key operator in Iran’s nuclear weapons programme, later telling journalists to “Remember this name — don’t forget it”.

The damaged car of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh © IRIB News Agency/AFP

Israel, which has maintained an undeclared nuclear weapons stockpile since at least the 1970s, has regularly been involved in the murder and assassination of government officials and independent actors it considers hostile to the Jewish state’s interests.

Between 2010 and 2012, at least four Iranian nuclear scientists were killed in Tehran. In July, an assembly plant for centrifuges in Natanz, the country’s main nuclear site, exploded in an attack which was widely believed to have been carried out by Israel.

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Ronen Bergman, the author of a book on Israeli assassinations Rise and Kill First, has estimated that Mossad and other agencies have murdered at least 2,700 people around the world, a number that the government has not denied.

Israel never claims official responsibility for the illegal acts, except when its spies are caught. But Israeli officials regularly brief US publications to take indirect credit for the assassinations, adding to what one retired intelligence officer told the FT was a “box them in strategy, so that Iran (in this instance) is publicly humiliated for failing to protect its most valued assets”.

Whoever carried out the attack, “had a short period of time to take action to weaken the Iranian nuclear programme and to convince Biden that once he becomes president he should not return to the agreement and create a condition that it’s going to be more difficult for him to rejoin the plan,” said Yossi Kuperwasser, a retired brigadier general who ran Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry.

“These are things that are designed to embarrass the Iranians, but while Israel has to be well prepared for any eventuality, we have to realise that the Iranians are smart, and they understand this might be a move that’s intended to lead them into making mistakes,” he added.

The economic crisis as well as the presence of dissident ethnic and political groups makes it easy for Israel to recruit people to carry out assassinations in Iran, said a regime insider close to hardline forces. He added that while “Israel pays no price internationally when it kills Iranian scientists . . . We cannot afford to retaliate for which we will be condemned by the whole world.”

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While influential, Fakhrizadeh’s death is not expected to hurt what is a long-established programme, Iranian insiders said. “This operation will make no change in Iran’s strategic plans because Iran has passed that stage of having one individual as ‘the father’ of our nuclear or missile programmes. These sectors are institutionalised now,” said the regime insider. “This was more about Israel sending a clear message to [US president-elect] Biden that he could not return to the nuclear accord with Iran.”

Nonetheless, the killing has shocked many in Iran. Within hours Fakhrizadeh had been taken by helicopter from the Damavand region to a hospital in Tehran, run by the Islamic republic’s elite Revolutionary Guard, where he died later that day. His wife survived the assault.

Many have voiced horror and anger at Israel’s apparent ability to act so freely inside Iran.

“If 12 assailants were present at the scene, how many others were involved in the operation? They have not come from the moon. They must be part of the system with huge access to the most sensitive information,” said Ali, a 62-year-old artist. “Where were our intelligence agents? Why was Fakhrizadeh not in a bulletproof car?”

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