image Photo: Reuters

Iran accuses Israel of killing nuclear scientist

Iran’s clerical and military rulers have been quick to accuse Israel of assassinating one of the Islamic Republic’s top nuclear scientists and are vowing to avenge his death “at the appropriate” moment.

59-year-old Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, widely regarded by Western and Israeli government of masterminding a clandestine Iranian nuclear weapons program, was ambushed on a highway near Tehran on Friday and gunned down in his car.

Iran has in the past accused its arch-foe, Israel, of killing at least four of its other top scientists between 2010 and 2012 in what the Islamic Republic claims were targeted assassinations designed to sabotage its nuclear energy program; which it has long insisted is for purely peaceful purposes and not the development of atomic weapons.

“They are trying to create chaos and unrest, but they must know (…) that they will never achieve their wicked goals,” President Hassan Rouhani said in a televised statement on Saturday.

“Once again, the evil hands of Global Arrogance and the Zionist mercenaries were stained with the blood of an Iranian son,” he said, using terms officials employ to refer to Israel in a statement posted on his official website.

After saying the attempt to sow “chaos” by carrying out “the assassination of martyr Fakhrizadeh shows our enemies’ despair and the depth of their hatred,” Iran’s President vowed that his “martyrdom will not slow down our achievements” and that his nation would retaliate at “the proper time.”

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei pledged on his official Twitter account to continue Fakhrizadeh’s work. “Two important issues should be put on the agenda by all officials: 1. Pursuing and punishing the perpetrators of this crime; 2. Pursuing and continuing the scientific and technical efforts of the martyr Fakhrizadeh,” he wrote. He hailed Fakhrizadeh as “The outstanding nuclear and defense scientist of our country,” who he said “has been martyred at the hands of criminal and cruel mercenaries. With his unique scientific efforts, he sacrificed his life on the lofty path of God and martyrdom is his divine reward.”

“Undoubtedly, Iran will give a calculated and decisive answer to the criminals who took Martyr Mohsen Fakhrizadeh from the Iranian nation,” said the Supreme leader’s advisor Kamal Kharrazi, who is also head of Iran’s Strategic Council on Foreign Relations.

Iran’s English language Press TV today cited an unnamed source as claiming that “The weapon collected from the site of the terrorist act (of Fakhrizadeh’s ambush) bears the logo and specifications of the Israeli military industry.”

The hardline Kayhan daily, whose editor-in-chief is appointed by Khamenei, called for an attack on the Israeli port city of Haifa in retaliation. “The attack should be carried out in such a way that in addition to destroying the facilities, it should also cause heavy human casualties,” wrote Saadollah Zarei in an opinion piece.

“Definitely Iran will retaliate. When and how depends on our national interests. It might happen in the coming days or weeks, but it will happen,” said another senior Iranian official cited by Reuters, pointing to the Iranian missile barrage in January on an Iraqi base where United States military forces were stationed in the days after an American drone strike in Baghdad killed top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani. No U.S. troops were killed in the action.

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called for restraint from all sides, to which Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif retorted by Tweet that it is “shameful that some refuse to stand against terrorism and hide behind calls for restraint.”

“Fakhrizadeh’s martyrdom will accelerate our nuclear work,” promised former head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization Fereydoon Abbasi, who survived an attempt on his own life in 2010.

Despite Iranian denials, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and U.S. intelligence services have long believed that Fakhrizadeh was the mastermind of Iran’s nuclear arms program. He was the only Iranian scientist named in the IAEA’s 2015 “final assessment” of open questions about the nuclear program. According to that report, he oversaw activities “in support of a possible military dimension to (Iran’s) nuclear program.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to comment on the assassination, but it is interesting to note that during a 2018 presentation he had directly accused Fakhrizadeh of leading Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. His comment at the time, “Remember that name, Fahrizadeh,” has fueled speculation of possible Israeli involvement in the attack.

Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen denied knowing who was behind the attack while speaking to Israel’s 103 FM radio station today, and the Foreign Ministry said it does not comment on security regarding missions abroad.

Israeli cabinet minister Tzachi Hanegbi, considered a close Netanyahu confidante, said on Saturday he also did not know who carried it out. “It’s not that my lips are sealed because I’m being responsible, I simply really have no clue,” he said while speaking to N12’s Meet the Press.

Several Israeli embassies abroad are on high alert against possible Iranian retributory attacks even though there have as of yet been any concrete threats, according to reports on Israeli Army Radio.

The White House, Pentagon, U.S. State Department and CIA have also declined to comment on the killing. The U.S. Nimitz aircraft carrier accompanied ships to the Persian Gulf on Wednesday two days before the killing, in what a U.S. Navy spokeswoman was not related to any specific threats. The transition team for U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has also declined to comment.

The Iranian regime is aware of daunting military and political difficulties involved in a direct attack on Israel, which would also complicate efforts by the incoming Biden Administration to revive detente with Tehran after he takes office on 20 January.

Tensions have soared between Tehran and Washington since 2018, since outgoing-U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from Iran’s 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal with six major powers. Under the JCOPOA, Iran agreed to curb its nuclear work in return for the lifting of sanctions. After exiting the deal, the Trump Administration ramped up U.S. sanctions, driving down Iran’s vital oil exports and crippling the economy. Tehran retaliated by accelerating its nuclear work in violation of the accord.

On condition that Iran resumes compliance, Biden previously said he would return the United States to the pact that was forged while he served as Vice President under leadership by Barack Obama.

“Whether Iran is tempted to take revenge or whether it restrains itself, it will make it difficult for Biden to return to the nuclear agreement,” commented former Israeli military intelligence chief and director of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies Amos Yadlin on Twitter.