An Iranian scientist long suspected by the West of masterminding a secret nuclear bomb program was killed in an ambush near Teheran on Friday that could provoke confrontation between Iran and its foes in the last weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency.
The death of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who Iranian media said died in hospital after armed assassins gunned him down in his car, will also complicate any effort by US President-elect Joe Biden to revive the detente of Barack Obama’s presidency.
Iran pointed the finger at Israel, while implying the killing had the blessing of the departing Trump. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif wrote on Twitter of “serious indications of (an) Israeli role”.
The military adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed to “strike as thunder at the killers of this oppressed martyr”. “In the last days of the political life of their ... ally (Trump), the Zionists seek to intensify pressure on Iran and create a full-blown war,” Hossein Dehghan tweeted.
Channels of the Telegram encrypted messaging app believed to be close to Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards reported that the top security body, the Supreme National Security Council, had convened an emergency meeting with senior military commanders present.
There was silence from foreign capitals. Israel declined to comment. The White House, Pentagon, US State Department and CIA also declined to comment, as did Biden’s transition team.
Fakhrizadeh has been described by Western and Israeli intelligence services for years as the mysterious leader of a covert atomic bomb program halted in 2003, which Israel and the United States accuse Teheran of trying to restore. Iran has long denied seeking to weaponize nuclear energy.
“Unfortunately, the medical team did not succeed in reviving (Fakhrizadeh), and a few minutes ago, this manager and scientist achieved the high status of martyrdom after years of effort and struggle,” Iran’s armed forces said in a statement.
The semi-official news agency Tasnim said “terrorists blew up another car” before firing on a vehicle carrying Fakhrizadeh and his bodyguards in an ambush outside the capital.
In the aftermath, there was a heavy presence of security forces stopping cars in Teheran in an apparent search for the killers, witnesses said.
Trump, who lost his re-election bid to Biden on Nov 3 and leaves office on Jan 20, pulled the United States from a deal reached under Obama, his predecessor that lifted sanctions on Iran in return for curbs on its nuclear program.
Robert Malley, who served as Iran adviser to Obama and has informally, advised Biden’s team, said Fakhrizadeh’s killing was among a series of moves that have occurred during Trump’s final weeks that appear aimed at making it harder for Biden to re-engage with Iran.
A US official confirmed this month that Trump asked military aides for a plan for a possible strike on Iran. Trump decided against it to avoid a wider Middle East conflict.
Fakhrizadeh had no public profile, but was thought to have headed what the UN nuclear watchdog and US intelligence services believe was a coordinated nuclear weapons program in Iran, shelved in 2003.
He was the only Iranian scientist named in the International Atomic Energy Agency’s 2015 “final assessment” of open questions about Iran’s nuclear program. The IAEA’s report said he oversaw activities “in support of a possible military dimension to (Iran’s) nuclear program.”