Iranian scientist widely seen by Western intelligence as mastermind behind Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons.
Iran’s president has accused Israel of killing a high-ranking Iranian nuclear physicist long suspected by the West of masterminding a secret nuclear bomb programme, state TV reported.
“Once again, the evil hands of global arrogance were stained with the blood of the mercenary usurper Zionist regime,” President Hassan Rouhani said in a statement, according to the state TV report on Saturday.
“The assassination of martyr [Mohsen] Fakhrizadeh shows our enemies’ despair and the depth of their hatred … His martyrdom will not slow down our achievements.”
Iran’s religious and military rulers have threatened revenge for Friday’s killing of nuclear scientist Fakhrizadeh, who Iranian media said died in hospital after attackers gunned him down in his car in Ab-Sard, a suburb in eastern Tehran.
The Islamic republic’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei promised to retaliate for Fakhrizadeh’s assassination and said his nuclear work would continue.
He called for perpetrators to be punished, and in a statement published on his website, Khamenei said the scientist was “martyred by criminal and cruel mercenaries”.
In light of the assassination, Khamenei said Iranian authorities must seriously consider and follow up on two issues.
“First is following up on this crime and decisively punishing its perpetrators, and the other, following up on the scientific and technical endeavors of the martyr in all the sectors he was working,” he said.
Fakhrizade, 63, had been a member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and was an expert in missile production. He served as the head of the Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research of the defence ministry at the time of his death.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had specifically mentioned Fakhrizadeh by name in a 2018 presentation about Iran’s nuclear programme. “Remember this name,” he had said.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said there was evidence pointing to the involvement of Israel in the assassination, but it was unclear who exactly conducted the hit.
Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, Majid Takht Ravanchi, wrote in a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the UN Security Council on Friday that several top Iranian scientists had been killed in “terrorist attacks” over the last decade, and said “certain foreign quarters” were responsible.
He called the “cowardly” assassination of Fakhrizadeh an attempt to “wreak havoc” on the region and disrupt Iran’s development in the fields of science and technology.
The death of Fakhrizadeh could provoke confrontation between Iran and its rivals in the last weeks of Donald Trump’s US presidency while complicating any effort by President-elect Joe Biden to revive diplomacy with Iran.
Meanwhile, Guterres urged restraint in a statement released by his spokesman.
“We have noted the reports that an Iranian nuclear scientist has been assassinated near Tehran today. We urge restraint and the need to avoid any actions that could lead to an escalation of tensions in the region,” Guterres’s spokesman Farhan Haq said.
Al Jazeera’s Assed Baig, reporting from Tehran, said Iranian officials are already vowing to respond while saying their nuclear program will continue.
Israel has put its embassies around the world on high alert following such threats of retaliation, Israeli N12 news reported on Saturday.
A spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry said the ministry did not comment on matters of security regarding its representatives abroad.
According to Baig, the incident will likely raise questions about Iran’s “internal security”.
“Iran had never allowed him [Fakhrizadeh] to be interviewed by the International Atomic Agency,’ Baig said. “His whereabouts were also kept secret.”
The scientist’s killing came amid fresh concerns about the amount of enriched uranium Iran is producing. Enriched uranium is a key component for both nuclear power generation and nuclear weapons.
Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that Trump had asked his close aides what “options were available” to take action against Iran’s key nuclear site in Natanz, to which Tehran promised a “crushing response”.
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 past year, the Trump administration has 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.
Iran has previously called the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy an instance of “economic and medical terrorism”.
Additional reporting by Maziar Motamedi in Tehran.