Mohsen Fakhrizadeh
A view shows the scene of the attack that killed Prominent Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, outside Tehran, November 27, 2020. Image Credit: REUTERS

Beirut: He was one of Iran’s preeminent nuclear scientists, the country’s answer to Robert Oppenheimer, the American physicist who led the US’s effort to build a nuclear bomb during World War II.

As an officer in Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards and a physics professor in Tehran, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi was involved for decades in the upper echelons of the nation’s secret nuclear weapons programme. Western intelligence agencies contend he led Project 111, which aimed to develop a missile cone capable of delivering nuclear payloads for Iran’s arsenal, even as Tehran insisted its nuclear program was peaceful.

That influence and expertise made him a prized target for Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, which is widely believed to have been behind years-long assassination plots against Iran’s nuclear scientists. Since 2010, that campaign had felled several of Fakhrizadeh’s colleagues. On Friday afternoon, it appeared to have claimed him as well when gunmen ambushed his car on a highway outside Tehran.

Car exploded

The semi-official Fars News Agency reported Fakhrizadeh was killed near the resort town of Absard, some 60km east of Tehran. As his car was driving near an exit ramp on Mostafa Khomeini Boulevard, another car exploded. It was followed by a shootout between gunmen — who peppered Fakhrizadeh’s black Nissan Tiana with bullets — and the scientist’s security team.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif condemned the attack and blamed Israel: “Terrorists murdered an eminent Iranian scientist today,” he tweeted on Friday. “This cowardice — with serious indications of Israeli role — shows desperate warmongering of perpetrators.”

Whoever is behind the plot, it is likely to complicate efforts by President-elect Joe Biden to resuscitate talks with Iran and re-enter the landmark nuclear accord President Trump left in 2018. It also comes in the waning days of the Trump administration, which, in concert with Israel, has vowed to keep maximum pressure on Tehran in the coming weeks while complicating any attempt by Biden to reverse its policies.

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Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi was involved for decades in the upper echelons of the nation’s secret nuclear weapons programme Image Credit: Reuters

That killing is certain to rattle Iran similar to the US drone strike in January that killed Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, head of the elite Quds Force and architect of many of Iran’s covert operations, including financing, training and arming terrorist groups and militias across the Middle East. Suleimani, who was revered by Ayatollah Khamenei and a popular figure in Iran, spurred Tehran to retaliate by launching ballistic missiles on an American base in Iraq, causing traumatic brain injuries to scores of US service members.

Appropriate response

Such assassinations have not deterred Iran’s nuclear ambitions — and may have accelerated their development. Tehran has been accused of breaching uranium stockpile limits set in the nuclear agreement, in what it framed as an appropriate response to the US scuttling of the deal and Washington’s sanctions campaign. Earlier this month, it admitted it had fired up its Uranium-enriching centrifuges at the underground plant at Natanz — a further violation of the accords.

Fakhrizadeh killers ambushed him at a place where there would be less traffic than usual, with Iranians on the first day of their weekend and under partial lockdown because of COVID-19 restrictions. The area is known for its luxury villas, where rich Tehranis go for a weekend to escape the capital’s pollution.

Video posted on social media purported to show a helicopter transporting Fakhrizadeh to a nearby hospital for treatment. But he later succumbed to his wounds, according to a statement from the Iranian Ministry of Defense.

'High degree of martyrdom'

“This Friday afternoon, armed terrorist elements attacked a car carrying Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, head of the Ministry of Defence’s Research and Innovation Organisation,” it said. “During the clash between his security team and the terrorists, 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.”

It was unclear if the gunmen had escaped, but Fars News reported several of the attackers had been killed in the skirmish.

An elusive figure, Western intelligence agencies had long charged Fakhrizadeh of being the mastermind of Iran’s covert nuclear weapon programme, Project Amad or “hope,” before shelving it some time around 2003.

But the US and Israel contend that Fakhrizadeh continued his research. In 2007, the UN named him as a person involved in nuclear or ballistic missile activities and put him under an asset freeze. A year later, Washington sanctioned him as well. Last year, it also sanctioned the Shahid Karimi group, known by its Farsi acronym SPND, which Fakhrizadeh headed and which the US Treasury Department said works on missile and explosive-related projects.

He was also the focus of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a 2018 news conference revealing a cache of classified materials on Iran’s nuclear programme.

“Remember that name, Fakhrizadeh,” Netanyahu said at the time.

Later on Friday, Netanyahu released a video on Twitter making references to information he said he could not share, leading some to speculate he was boasting of the assassination.

“I want to share with you a list of what I’ve done this week, a partial list, of course, because I can’t tell you everything,” the prime minister began. “It’s a long list ... .” He then repeated, “It’s a partial list ... a week of achievements, and there will be more.”

'Message to Iran's leaders'

If Israel were responsible for the killing, said Uzi Rabi, the director of Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Centre for Middle Eastern and African Studies and a senior researcher at the Centre for Iranian Studies, it would serve as a message to Iran’s leaders that “the fact Biden was elected isn’t going to change anything.”

“If you cross our lines, this is what we can do. The world will not change in the way you are expecting. Biden isn’t bringing you a rose garden,” he said. He added he believed the operation was a joint US-Israeli effort — one that had delivered a major blow.

“It’s a major operational hit — more or less equivalent to the US hit on (Maj. Gen.) Qassem Suleimani,” Rabi said.

Iranian officials, meanwhile, warned of the prospect of an all-out conflict.

“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,” tweeted Hossein Dehghan, an advisor to Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader.

“We will descend like lightning on the killers of this oppressed martyr, and we will make them regret their actions!”

Despite the fiery rhetoric, said Ariane Tabatabai, an Iran expert and Middle East Fellow at the German Marshall Fund, Tehran faces a difficult choice.

“On the one hand, they don’t want to rock the boat between now and January 20 both to try to salvage the JCPOA and to avoid giving Trump an excuse to attack them,” she said.

“But at the same time, they now have a series of incidents that have highlighted their weakness and vulnerability to the world.”