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Sunday, 24 January 2021 2.09 AM IST

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh: Iran vows to avenge scientist's assassination

iran-nuke-scientist-

TEHRAN: Iran's president has blamed Israel for the killing of a top nuclear scientist on Friday, and said it would not slow down the country's nuclear programme.

Hassan Rouhani also said Iran would retaliate over Mohsen Fakhrizadeh's killing at a time of its choosing.

Fakhrizadeh was killed in an ambush on his car by gunmen in the town of Absard, east of the capital Tehran.

Israel has not commented, but it has previously accused him of being behind a covert nuclear weapons programme.

Fakhrizadeh was Iran's most renowned nuclear scientist, who headed the ministry of defence's research and innovation organisation.

His killing threatens to escalate tensions over Iran's nuclear programme with the US and its close ally Israel.

President Rouhani said his country would respond "in due course" but that Fakhrizadeh's killing would not push Iran into making hasty decisions, in televised comments on Saturday.

"Iran's enemies should know that the people of Iran and officials are braver than to leave this criminal act unanswered," he said in a televised cabinet meeting.

"In due time, they will answer for this crime," he added.

In an earlier statement, the president accused the "the mercenaries of the oppressive Zionist regime" - referring to Israel - of being behind the attack.

"The assassination of martyr Fakhrizadeh shows our enemies' despair and the depth of their hatred... His martyrdom will not slow down our achievements."

There has been no comment from Israel on the killing. The New York Times quotes three US officials, including two intelligence officials, as saying Israel was behind the attack.

Fakhrizadeh's name was specifically mentioned in Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu's presentation about Iran's nuclear programme in April 2018.

Hossein Dehghan, military adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, vowed to "strike" the perpetrators like thunder.

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called on the international community to "condemn this act of state terror".

"The assassination of martyr Fakhrizadeh shows our enemies' despair and the depth of their hatred... His martyrdom will not slow down our achievements."

There has been no comment from Israel on the killing. The New York Times quotes three US officials, including two intelligence officials, as saying Israel was behind the attack.

Fakhrizadeh's name was specifically mentioned in Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu's presentation about Iran's nuclear programme in April 2018.

Hossein Dehghan, military adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, vowed to "strike" the perpetrators like thunder.

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called on the international community to "condemn this act of state terror".


What's the context?

News of the killing comes amid fresh concern about the increased amount of enriched uranium that the country is producing. Enriched uranium is a vital component for both civil nuclear power generation and military nuclear weapons.

A 2015 deal with six world powers had placed limits on its production, but since US President Donald Trump abandoned the deal in 2018, Iran has been deliberately reneging on its agreements. However, it insists its nuclear programme is exclusively for peaceful purposes.

Joe Biden has pledged to re-engage with Iran when he becomes US president in January, despite long-standing opposition from Israel.

The former head of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), John Brennan, said the killing of the scientist was a "criminal" and "highly reckless" act that risks inflaming conflict in the region.

In a series of tweets, he said Fakhrizadeh's death "risks lethal retaliation and a new round of regional conflict".

Mr Brennan added that he did not know "whether a foreign government authorised or carried out the murder of Fakhrizadeh".

These are weeks which matter - the countdown to 20 January when President-elect Biden takes office with a new approach to Iran including an expected return to the 2015 nuclear deal.

This assassination follows the not-so-secret meeting last week in Saudi Arabia between the Saudi foreign minister and Israeli prime minister - officially denied by the Kingdom. It sent another signal that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Benjamin Netanyahu see this window as their last best chance in a while to try to inflict a crippling blow on their arch-enemy Iran - a blow to also complicate an already challenging course for a new US team to re-engage with the Islamic Republic.

All sides know it's also a moment fraught with risk. Iran's President Rouhani declares Iran is "too wise to fall into Israel's trap."

An immediate retaliation risks an even greater reply, and a descent into even greater crisis which could imperil any chance of a new start in January.


What happened to Mohsen Fakhrizadeh?

Iran's defence ministry said "armed terrorists" had targeted a vehicle carrying Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

"After a clash between the terrorists and his bodyguards, Mr Fakhrizadeh was severely injured and rushed to hospital.

"Unfortunately, the medical team's efforts to save him were unsuccessful and minutes ago he passed away."

Iranian media reports said the attackers opened fire on the scientist in his car.

Fars news agency earlier reported there was a car explosion in Absard town, with witnesses reporting that "three to four individuals, who are said to have been terrorists, were killed".

It is not clear what happened to the gunmen after the attack.

Who was Mohsen Fakhrizadeh?

Fakhrizadeh has long been spoken about by Western security sources as extremely powerful and instrumental in Iran's nuclear programme.

According to secret documents obtained by Israel in 2018, he led a programme to create nuclear weapons.

At the time, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he identified Fakhrizedeh as the head scientist in the programme, and urged people to "remember that name".

In 2015, the New York Times compared him to J Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who directed the Manhattan Project that during World War Two produced the first atomic weapons.

A professor of physics, Fakhrizadeh is said to have led Project Amad, the alleged covert programme that was established in 1989 to research the potential for building a nuclear bomb. It was shut down in 2003, according to the IAEA, though Mr Netanyahu said the documents retrieved in 2018 showed Fakhrizadeh led a programme which secretly continued Project Amad's work.

The IAEA has long wanted to speak to him as part of its investigations into Iran's nuclear programme.

Suspicions that Iran was using the programme as a cover to develop a nuclear bomb prompted the EU, US and UN to impose crippling sanctions in 2010.

The 2015 deal that Iran reached with the US, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany saw it limit its nuclear activities in return for sanctions relief.

Since President Trump abandoned the deal, it has floundered. Earlier this month, the IAEA said Iran had more than 12 times the amount of enriched uranium than permitted under the deal.

Meanwhile, tensions between the US and Iran have escalated, peaking in January with America's assassination of Gen Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' Quds force.

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TAGS: MOHSEN FAKHRIZADEH, IRAN, SCIENTIST, ASSASSINATION, FAKHRIZADEH, DEFENCES RESEARCH AND INNOVATION ORGANISATION, IRANS NUCLEAR PROGRAMME
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