An Iranian nuclear scientist long suspected to be the mastermind of the Islamic republic’s alleged nuclear military programme was killed on Friday by “armed terrorists”, officials said, blaming Israel for the assassination.
Iran’s ministry of defence said Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, head of its Physics Research Centre, was killed in his car. Assailants shot him, according to a state news agency. Images on state television showed a black Nissan sedan with shattered windows.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on his Twitter feed on Saturday that the country would seek to prosecute those responsible for the assassination and that Fakhrizadeh’s nuclear work would continue.
Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, suggested earlier in a post on Twitter that there was Israeli involvement in the attack. “Terrorists murdered an eminent Iranian scientist today. This cowardice — with serious indications of Israeli role — shows desperate warmongering of perpetrators,” he said. “Iran calls on int’l community — and especially EU — to end their shameful double standards & condemn this act of state terror.”
The killing escalates tensions in the last weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency. It comes amid speculation that hawks in Mr Trump’s administration would seek to inflict further blows on Iran’s nuclear programme before president-elect Joe Biden takes office. US media have reported that Mr Trump had asked his advisers about options for striking Iran’s nuclear sites.
Mr Trump abandoned the historic 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers in 2018 and imposed crippling sanctions on the Islamic republic.
Mr Biden has promised to revive the deal, provided Iran complies with its terms. Israel and the US have become increasingly concerned about the country’s nuclear activity, as the Islamic republic’s stockpile of enriched uranium is now 12 times as much as permitted under the accord. Tehran, which has always denied it has a military nuclear programme, ramped up its nuclear activity in response to Mr Trump’s decision to withdraw from the accord and pursue a “maximum pressure” strategy against Iran.
It is not yet clear how Iran will respond and whether this killing could jeopardise the prospect of talks over the nuclear deal with the incoming US administration.
Hossein Dehghan, a former defence minister and military adviser to the Ayatollah, blamed Israel but indicated that Iran would not respond quickly.
“Zionists in the last days of their gambler allies [ Mr Trump] are seeking to intensify pressure on Iran and wage an all-out war,” Mr Dehghan said in a post on Twitter. “The night is long and . . . [we are] awake,” he added, using an Iranian saying that suggests patience. “We will come on to the heads of the killers of this martyr like a thunder and make them regret.”
In July, an assembly plant for centrifuges in Natanz, the country’s main nuclear site, exploded. At the time, some Iranian officials said it was “industrial sabotage” without saying who did it. There was widespread speculation that this attack was carried out by Israel.
Israel typically neither confirms nor denies involvement in such incidents.
Between 2010 and 2012, four Iranian nuclear scientists were assassinated and another wounded. Iran accused Israel of complicity in the attacks. While some people have been arrested for the assassinations, the Islamic republic has not detained anyone linked to Israeli intelligence services for these attacks.
“Undoubtedly, Israel is behind this crime. Israel is horribly present inside Iran,” said Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a former reformist vice-president who said this was the outcome of the “dangerous meeting” of the US secretary of state, Israeli prime minister and Saudi crown prince in Saudi Arabia this week. “Iran’s security strategy should go back to finding spies and Mossad infiltrators.”