Alleged head of Iran’s nuclear weapons program is assassinated near Tehran

Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in an undated photo (Courtesy)

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh’s car bombed and shot at; blaming ‘Zionists,’ adviser to Khamenei vows to ‘descend like lightning on killers’; scientist has been called ‘father of Iranian bomb’

By TOI STAFF and AGENCIESToday, 4:00 pm  7Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in an undated photo (Courtesy)

The alleged head of Iran’s nuclear weapons program was assassinated Friday near the capital Tehran, Iran’s defense ministry said.

The ministry confirmed the death of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a professor of physics and an officer in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, after it was widely reported in Iranian media.

“This Friday afternoon, armed terrorist elements attacked a car carrying Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, head of the Ministry of Defense’s Research and Innovation Organization,” it said. “During the clash between his security team and the terrorists, Mr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was seriously injured and taken to hospital.

“Unfortunately, the medical team did not succeed in reviving him, and a few minutes ago, this manager and scientist, after years of effort and struggle, achieved a high degree of martyrdom.

There was no comment on whether the attackers had escaped.

The attack happened in Absard, a small city just east of the capital, Tehran. Iran’s Fars and the Tasnim news agencies, both close to security sources, said it involved “terrorists bombing a car before shooting at Mr. Fakhrizadeh’s car.”

Those wounded, including Fakhrizadeh’s bodyguards, were later taken to a local hospital, Fars said.

State television on its website later published a photograph of security forces blocking off the road. Photos and video shared online showed a Nissan sedan with bullet holes through the windshield and blood pooled on the road.

Hossein Salami, chief commander of the paramilitary Revolutionary Guards, appeared to acknowledge the attack on Fakhrizadeh.

“Assassinating nuclear scientists is the most violent confrontation to prevent us from reaching modern science,” Salami tweeted.

Hossein Dehghan, an adviser to Iran’s supreme leader and a presidential candidate in Iran’s 2021 election, issued a warning on Twitter.

“In the last days of their gambling ally’s political life, the Zionists seek to intensify and increase pressure on Iran to wage a full-blown war,” Dehghan wrote, appearing to refer to US President Donald Trump. “We will descend like lightning on the killers of this oppressed martyr and we will make them regret their actions!”Gen. Hossein Dehghan, a military adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in Tehran, Iran, November 18, 2020. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

The area around Absard is filled with vacation villas for the Iranian elite with a view of Mount Damavand, the highest peak in the country. Roads on Friday, part of the Iranian weekend, were emptier than normal due to a lockdown over the coronavirus pandemic, offering his attackers a chance to strike with fewer people around.

Fakhrizadeh was named by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2018 as the director of Iran’s nuclear weapons project.

When Netanyahu revealed then that Israel had removed from a warehouse in Tehran a vast archive of Iran’s own material detailing with its nuclear weapons program, he said: “Remember that name, Fakhrizadeh.”

Israel has long been suspected of carrying out a series of targeted killings of Iranian nuclear scientists nearly a decade ago, in a bid to curtail Iran’s nuclear program. It made no comment on the matter Friday.

In a video uploaded to Twitter Friday shortly after news of the alleged killing emerged, Netanyahu, counting off various achievements of the week, noted that this was “a partial list, as I can’t tell you everything.”

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack. However, Iranian media all noted the interest that Netanyahu had previously shown in Fakhrizadeh.

Fakhrizadeh led Iran’s so-called “Amad,” or “Hope” program. Israel and the West have alleged it was a military operation looking at the feasibility of building a nuclear weapon in Iran. Tehran long has maintained its nuclear program is peaceful.

The International Atomic Energy Agency says that the “Amad” program ended in the early 2000s. Its inspectors now monitor Iranian nuclear sites.

But Netanyahu said in his 2018 comments that Fakhrizadeh was continuing to lead such efforts secretly under SPND, “an organization inside Iran’s Defense Ministry.”Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands in front of a picture of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who he named as the head of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, April 30, 2018 (YouTube screenshot)

An Israeli TV report in May 2018 claimed Israel may have decided not to assassinate Fakhrizadeh in the past because it preferred to keep him alive and watch what he was up to.

“If Iran ever chose to weaponize [enrichment], Fakhrizadeh would be known as the father of the Iranian bomb,” a Western diplomat told the Reuters news agency four years ago. He has often been compared with Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the American nuclear development program in the 1940s.

A report on Axios Wednesday claimed that the Israeli army has been preparing for the possibility that US President Donald Trump will order a strike on Iran before leaving office in January.

Citing senior Israeli officials, Axios said there was no specific information that such an attack is imminent, but Israeli leaders believe the US president’s final weeks in the job will be “a very sensitive period.”

The officials said Washington would likely update Israel before carrying out military action against the Islamic Republic.

In January the US assassinated Qassem Soleimani, the powerful head of Iran’s Quds Force, in an airstrike at Baghdad International Airport, nearly sparking a larger conflict between the countries.In this Sept. 18, 2016 file photo released by an official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, center, attends a meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Revolutionary Guard commanders in Tehran, Iran. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

Intelligence expert Ronen Bergman told Israel’s Channel 10 news in 2019 that given that many of Fakhrizadeh’s close aides had been killed over the years in assassinations linked to the Mossad, it was “reasonable to assume” that he would also have been “picked out” for assassination by the Mossad over the years.

Since Fakhhrizadeh is still alive, said Bergman at the time, “one can say apparently there was an assassination plan.” And apparently it was rejected during the years when Ehud Olmert was prime minister, Bergman added, choosing his words carefully given the limitations of military censorship when it comes to matters of national security.

“Apparently, there were those who came to Olmert… and said, listen, there is a danger that the operation will fail; there is a danger that the forces on the ground will be discovered.”

Olmert evidently chose to heed those concerns and not approve such an operation, said Bergman, a well-connected journalist on Israeli intelligence and security who recently published a landmark book, “Rise and Kill First,” on “the secret history of Israel’s targeted assassinations.”

Olmert was prime minister until 2009, when Netanyahu succeeded him.

Israel has never acknowledged assassinating people involved in the Iranian nuclear program.

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