An Iranian official described as the “father” of Iran’s nuclear programmes was assassinated in a mountain resort area on the outskirts of Tehran, the capital, Iran’s defence ministry has said in a statement.
Mohsen Fakhrizadeh has been described as a scientist who worked on the most sensitive dimensions of Iran’s nuclear and missile programmes. International investigators inspecting the country’s atomic technology programme have unsuccessfully sought for years to interview him about his work.
He was reportedly targeted in the town of Absard, about 50 miles east of central Tehran, after what witnesses described as a gunfight between unknown assailants and his bodyguards. Photos of the scene showed blood splattered on the windshield of a sedan described as belonging to the scientist. He was 59 years old.
“Armed terrorists attacked the car of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the chief of the research and innovation organisation of the ministry of defence,” said an official statement. “In the course of the clash between his security team and the terrorists, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was seriously injured and he was taken to a hospital. Unfortunately, the medical team’s efforts were not successful and this scientist was martyred after years of hard work and struggle."
For years Fakhrizadeh’s work was so sensitive even his name was a closely held secret. He was believed to be behind a clandestine effort to develop Iranian nuclear weapons that is likely to have ended in 2003. But he has since been frequently cited as a premier target by Iran’s enemies, including Israel and a well-connected exile group called the Mojahedin-e-Khalq organisation that has allegedly collaborated with Saudi Arabia, another rival of Iran.
“He was very important,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, a former US State Department official specialising in nuclear nonproliferation and now a fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “He was a Robert Oppenheimer-like figure,” he said referring to the man who oversaw the first American nuclear weapons programme.
His apparent assassination is likely to prompt calls for revenge by the Iranian security establishment. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, called on the international community to condemn the killing.
“Terrorists murdered an eminent Iranian scientist today,” he wrote on Twitter. “This cowardice – with serious indications of Israeli role – shows desperate warmongering of perpetrators.”
The military adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Hossein Dehghan, tweeted 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," Dehghan wrote.
Mr Fitzpatrick said he doubted the killing would set back Iran’s nuclear programme. Iran’s missile development proceeded to accelerate even after the suspicious 2011 death of Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam, then head of the solid-fuel missile programme, he noted.
“The killing of Fakhrizadeh will be couched as an effort to impede any Iranian effort to ramp up the nuclear programme,” he said. “But Iran has had many years to train and develop other nuclear scientists. Assassinating him will not materially set back their programme.”
But the killing also also underscores serious security lapses exploited by probable anti-regime operatives who were able to penetrate the country and bypass heavy layers of surveillance imposed by authorities.
Iran has endured months of mysterious sabotage targeting missile and nuclear and missile installations as well as an assassination campaign targeting scientists involved in atomic research between 2010 and 2012.
Fakhrizadeh would represent by far the most prominent figure to be assassinated on Iranian soil. If Israel was behind the attack, it would mark an escalation that could force Iran to react, potentially dragging the US into an armed conflict in the waning weeks of the administration of Donald Trump.
Outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently visited Israel and Saudi Arabia in a trip some feared could be the prelude to a possible escalation with Iran.
But Iran could also opt for restraint. Tehran is eager to explore the possibility of returning to the nuclear deal that placed limits on its atomic energy programme in exchange for relief from US and international sanctions. Mr Trump pulled out of the deal and prompted Iran to ramp up its production of nuclear fissile material. US president-elect Joe Biden has committed to rejoining the agreement, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), forged by his former boss, Barack Obama, along with European nations.
Mr Fitzpatrick suggested the killing, if organised by foreign forces, could have been designed to sabotage any attempt to return to the deal by stoking Iranian anger. “The purpose is obviously less to impede the restoration of the JCPOA in the waning days of the Trump administration. It’s an effort to provoke Iran and make it harder to return to the deal.”