Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was widely viewed by Western intelligence as the mastermind of Iran's covert efforts to develop nuclear weapons, was killed outside of Tehran on Friday. Photos from the scene showed Fakhrizadeh's car apparently ambushed, with a shattered windshield and blood on the road.
The attack happened in Absard, a village just east of the capital that is a sanctuary for the Iranian elite. Iranian state television said a truck with hidden explosives blew up near a sedan carrying Fakhrizadeh. Roads on Friday, part of the Iranian weekend, were emptier than usual due to a coronavirus lockdown, giving his attackers the opportunity to strike with fewer people nearby. Unconfirmed reports say Fakhrizadeh, after hearing what sounded like bullets hitting a vehicle, exited the car to investigate. At that time, a remote-controlled machine gun opened fire from a Nissan parked about 500 feet from his car. The Nissan then exploded.
Fakhrizadeh died at a hospital after doctors and paramedics were unable to resuscitate him. The attack also injured Fakhrizadeh's bodyguard.
Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, right, sits alongside two unidentified men in a meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran, Iran, January 23, 2019/Photo credit: AP
According to Iran's Press TV, a weapon used in Fakrizadeh's assassination was recovered from the scene and bears the logo and specifications of the Israeli military industry. The weapon was reportedly "controlled by satellite."
Living under the shadows of immense security, Fakhrizadeh was rarely, if ever, seen in public and was never made accessible to United Nations nuclear investigators. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), he was said to have strong ties to the AMAD, an Iranian scientific project started in 1989 and stopped in 2003, believed to be developing nuclear weapons.
On Friday afternoon, the Iranian Defense Ministry wrote, "The nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was assassinated today by terrorists." Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has condemned the killing "as an act of state terror" with "serious indications of Israeli role."
Iran has long accused Israel of complicity in the killing four Iranian nuclear scientists between 2010 and 2012. Israel had no comment on Friday's attack, and Israeli TV reports late Friday said the Israeli Defense Forces had not been placed on a heightened alert.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack. Iranian media, however, noted the interest that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had previously shown in Fakhrizadeh. He once told the public to “remember that name” when talking about Fakhrizadeh.
In 2014, one Western diplomat told Reuters that if Iran did decide to weaponize uranium enrichment for nuclear power, Fakhrizadeh would be known as "the father of the Iranian bomb." Iran has denied Fakhrizadeh's involvement in any such endeavor. The country has long maintained its nuclear program is for civilian purposes only.
The killing risks raising existing tensions across the Mideast, and in the event Joe Biden is inaugurated in January, will likely complicate his efforts to bring America to an agreement designed to ensure Iran does not have enough highly enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon.
President Trump retweeted a post from Israeli journalist Yossi Melman, an expert on the Israeli Mossad intelligence service, about the killing. Melman’s tweet called the killing a “major psychological and professional blow for Iran.”
Mossad, the national intelligence agency of Israel, had gained access to Fakhrizadeh's name via a United Nations list which referred to him as a senior scientist of Iran's Defense Ministry's Physics Research Center, according to Fars.
In recent years, U.S. sanctions lists identified him as running Iran's Organization for Defensive Innovation and Research. Just last year, the State Department reported that the organization is working on "dual-use research and development activities, of which aspects are potentially useful for nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons delivery systems."