‘Combustible’ period before Joe Biden takes office could complicate plans to restart diplomacy with Iran, analysts say.
High-ranking Iranian nuclear physicist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, named by the West as leading the Islamic Republic’s military nuclear programme until its disbanding in the early 2000s, has been assassinated in an ambush near Tehran.
Fakhrizadeh was shot “by terrorists” in his vehicle in Absard, a suburb in eastern Tehran, and he later succumbed to his injuries in what amounted to a “martyr’s death”, Iran’s Foreign Ministry said on Friday.
Local authorities had confirmed Fakhrizadeh’s death several hours earlier and also said that several attackers were killed.
Fakhrizadeh served as the head of the Research and Innovation Organisation of the defence ministry at the time of his death.
Iran’s foreign minister alleged the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh bore “serious indications” of an Israeli role, but did not elaborate.
Israel declined to immediately comment on the killing of Fakhrizadeh, whom Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once called out in a news conference saying: “Remember that name.”
Israel has long been suspected of carrying out a series of targeted killings of Iranian nuclear scientists nearly 10 years ago.
Photos and video shared online showed a Nissan sedan with bullet holes through windshield and blood pooled on the road.
The semiofficial Fars News Agency said witnesses heard the sound of an explosion and then machine gun fire. The attack targeted the car Fakhrizadeh was travelling in, the agency said.
Those wounded, including Fakhrizadeh’s bodyguards, were taken to a local hospital, the agency said.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.
Al Jazeera’s Assed Baig, reporting from Tehran, said that according to Fars News Agency, Fakhrizadeh “came under attack by three-four unknown assailants”.
“They also say three-four people were killed in that incident,” Baig said.
“We have had the head of the Revolutionary Guard say that assassinating nuclear scientists is an attempt by hegemonic powers to stop Iran from gaining new sciences.”
Iran’s foreign minister called on the international community to condemn “this act of state terror”.
“Terrorists murdered an eminent Iranian scientist today. This cowardice – with serious indications of Israeli role – shows desperate warmongering of perpetrators,” Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote on Twitter on Friday.
Terrorists murdered an eminent Iranian scientist today. This cowardice—with serious indications of Israeli role—shows desperate warmongering of perpetrators
Iran calls on int'l community—and especially EU—to end their shameful double standards & condemn this act of state terror.
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) November 27, 2020
In a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the UN Security Council on Friday, Iran also said there are “serious indications of Israeli responsibility” in the attack and said it reserves the right to defend itself.
“Warning against any adventuristic measures by the United States and Israel against my country, particularly during the remaining period of the current administration of the United States in office, the Islamic Republic of Iran reserves its rights to take all necessary measures to defend its people and secure its interests,” Iran’s UN envoy, Majid Takht Ravanchi, wrote in the letter, which was seen by Reuters news agency.
Fakhrizadeh, 63, had been a member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and was an expert in missile production. Fars said that is why Israeli secret services had long sought to eliminate him for many years.
A military adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused Israel of killing Fakhrizadeh to try to provoke a war.
“In the last days of the political life of their … ally [US President Donald Trump], the Zionists (Israel) seek to intensify pressure on Iran and create a full-blown war,” commander Hossein Dehghan tweeted.
He said Fakhrizadeh’s work will continue to be a “nightmare” for Iran’s enemies.
Fakhrizadeh was one of “the people who are fighting without any claims behind the scenes of political battles and achieved martyrdom in this path”, Dehghan tweeted.
The US Pentagon declined to comment on reports of the attack.
Mohammad Marandi, a professor at the University of Tehran, told Al Jazeera that the assassination “is going to make Iranians more assertive when it comes to dealing with its antagonists” and that it was too late for hostile entities to do anything about Iran’s nuclear programme.
“Fifty years ago, if they carried out this attack it would’ve had an impact. But now Iran’s nuclear programme is developed, it’s highly diverse. It has many young scientists and these murders will be more detrimental to Iran’s antagonists, I believe, than Iran,” Marandi said.
“[Fakharizadeh] was one of the first generation of people in Iran who helped develop nuclear technology.”
Fakhrizadeh led Iran’s so-called Amad (Hope) programme. Israel and the West have alleged it was a military operation looking at the feasibility of building a nuclear weapon in Iran. Tehran has long maintained its nuclear programme is peaceful.
The International Atomic Energy Agency says the Amad programme ended in the early 2000s. Its inspectors now monitor Iranian nuclear sites.
The assassination comes as Trump, who has been fervently backed by Israel in his “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran, is slated to leave office in less than two months after losing the presidential election to Democrat Joe Biden.
In recent weeks, multiple reports by American media have said, citing unnamed sources, that Trump has been seriously considering a military attack on Iran, even on its main nuclear site in Natanz.
In May 2018, Trump unilaterally withdrew from Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and imposed harsh economic sanctions that have only escalated since.
In the first European reaction to Fakhrizadeh’s assassination, Carl Bildt, co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the attack may be related to Biden’s promise to return to the nuclear deal.
“It’s not unlikely that this targeted killing was part of efforts to prevent the Biden administration from reviving diplomacy with Iran and going back to the nuclear agreement,” he tweeted.
It’s not unlikely that this targeted killing was part of efforts to prevent the Biden administration from reviving diplomacy with 🇮🇷 and going back to the nuclear agreement. https://t.co/QJ69e6xbV0
— Carl Bildt (@carlbildt) November 27, 2020
In the past year, the Trump administration has also tried to make it harder for a Biden administration to come back to the nuclear accord through retargeting Iranian entities and individuals that were already sanctioned with new terrorism-related designations.
Friday’s assassination marks the second high-profile targeted killing of a top Iranian official after IRGC Quds Force chief General Qassem Soleimani’s killing in a US air strike in January this year.
Hillary Mann Leverett, founder of political consultancy group Stratega, said while the killing was not as “shocking” as that of Soleimani’s assassination, it was still “very disturbing”.
New update from IRGC media: there were 12 assassins and only 4 bodyguards. One bodyguard was shot 4 times and the other 2 times, both are in severe conditions
— Reza Khaasteh (@Reza_Khaasteh) November 27, 2020
“It is certainly one of the most high-level assassinations we have seen in the past year,” she told Al Jazeera over Skype from Mclean, Virginia.
“I think it is intended to stoke tensions particularly in this interim period between the current administration and the Biden administration.”
“The Trump administration have openly said that they will exert what they call ‘maximum pressure’ in its most maximum essence between now and when they have to leave office on January 20,” Leverett said.
Iran has previously called the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy an instance of “economic and medical terrorism”.