ANALYSIS: What’s Behind the Assassination of Iran’s Top Nuclear Scientist

Israel’s brazen operation was a major blow to the Islamic Republic

By Yochanan Visser | | Topics: Iran
epa08850183 A handout picture provided by the Iranian defence ministry office shows the coffin of slain Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh is being carried inside the Shrine of Imam Reza, during a funeral ceremony in the city of Mashhad, northeaster Iran, 29 November 2020. Media reported that Iran blamed Israel for the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a senior Iranian nuclear scientist.  EPA-EFE/IRANIAN DEFENCE MINISTRY HANDOUT HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES Photo: EPA/Iranian Defense Ministry

The father of the Iranian nuclear program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, is dead.

He was assassinated last Friday en route to his vacation home in Absard, a mountain resort city 50 miles east of Tehran.

Media described Fakhrizadeh as an Iranian ‘nuclear scientist.’ But he was much more than that.

Fakhrizadeh was a Brigadier General in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Iran’s Deputy Minister of Defense, in addition to being head of the country’s illicit nuclear program. The IRGC general lead Iran’s secret AMAD nuclear program since its inception in 1989, and according to Israeli intelligence the program continues to this very day despite the International Atomic Energy Agency’s claim that Iran halted AMAD in 2003, when the US army invaded Iraq in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

“Remember that name,” Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu said about Fakhrizadeh in January of 2018, when he revealed that the Israeli spy agency Mossad had stolen 100,000 documents and discs documenting Iran’s secret nuclear weapon program from a warehouse in a suburb of Tehran.

The evidence procured in that raid, insisted Netanyahu, proved that Iran had secretly continued the AMAD program. Netanyahu revealed that one of the stolen documents contained a note from Fakhrizadeh in which the Iranian acknowledged that the “general aim is to announce the closure of Project Amad,” but “special activities will be carried out under the title of scientific know-how development.”

“This is how Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, head of Project Amad, put it. Remember that name, Fakhrizadeh,” Netanyahu said, pointing to a slide showing Fakhrizadeh’s comments.

“And in fact, this is exactly what Iran proceeded to do. It continued this work in a series of organizations over the years,” Netanyahu claimed.

He then continued by saying that Iran’s ongoing nuclear research was from 2003 conducted by the Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research in the Islamic Republic, also known as SPND.

“You will not be surprised to hear that SPND is led by the same person who led Project Amad: Dr. Fakhrizadeh,” Netanyahu said, adding that “not coincidentally, many of SPND’s key personnel worked under Fakhrizadeh on Project Amad. So this atomic archive clearly shows the Iran plan at the highest levels to continue work related to nuclear weapons under different guises and using the same personnel.”


Iran’s Oppenheimer

The New York Times in 2014 compared Fakhrizadeh, a professor of physics at the IRGC’s Imam Hussein University in Tehran, to Robert Oppenheimer, who developed the first American nuclear bomb.

In 2015, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) finally admitted in a report called “final assessment” that Fakhrizadeh was overseeing Iranian activities “in support of a possible military dimension to Iran’s nuclear program.”


A brazen operation

There are conflicting reports on how exactly Fakhrizadeh was assassinated last Friday.

The English paper Daily Mail, citing Iranian journalist Mohammad Ahwaze, reported that a team consisting of 62 people had carried out the assassination of the Iranian scientist.

The team had reportedly cut off the electricity in the area of a boulevard at the entrance of Absard and had placed a booby-trapped Nissan van at the scene of the ambush, while a team of four motorcycles, two snipers, and a Hyundai van with four assassins was waiting for Fakhrizadeh’s convoy, which consisted of three bulletproof cars. When the convoy arrived, the unknown assassins detonated the booby-trapped Nissan, Iran’s state-controlled television reported. The bomb hurled debris 300 meters, according to the report.

After that, snipers ostensibly opened fire on Fakhrizadeh and his bodyguards and according to the Iranians, an intense gunfight ensued.

This makes no sense, however, since it is by now known that none of the assassins were hit and every member of the team escaped unharmed.

Another Iranian state-controlled media outlet, Fars News, reported that Fakhrizadeh and his bodyguards were gunned down by a remote-controlled machine gun. Fars News, which is known for its untrustworthy reporting when it comes to events in Israel – as I learned first-hand from one of their reporters in the Druze town of Magdal Shams on the Golan Heights – furthermore claimed that the remote-controlled machine gun was placed on the Nissan van and that it was detonated remotely after the assassination. The owner of the van had recently left Iran, according to the Iranian media outlet.

Until now, the only thing we know for sure is that the operation that killed Iran’s nuclear program head was very well planned and that it was a very sophisticated assassination.


High-value targets

After the Mossad killed four of Iran’s top nuclear scientists about 10 years ago, the IRGC started to give Iranian nuclear scientists maximal protection by posting cars full of security agents around their homes, and wherever they did go.


Israel on high alert

Iran knows that Israel was behind the assassination of its nuclear program head and has vowed to take revenge.

“Once again the evil hands of global arrogance were stained with the blood of the mercenary usurper Zionist regime,” said Iran’s so-called “moderate” President Hassan Rouhani.

“Iran will surely respond to the martyrdom of our scientist at the proper time,” Rouhani added.

Iranian leaders, however, issued similar threats after the US military assassinated Qassem Soleimani, the shrewd commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force on January 3 of this year. The promised devastating reaction remained limited to a missile attack on a US army base in Iraq. Iranian leaders have since insisted that Soleimani’s death has yet to be avenged.

The reason that this has not happened – and the same is true for Iran’s reaction to Israel’s repeated strikes on Quds Force assets in Syria – is that Iran knows it can’t afford, or survive, an all-out war with the US or Israel.

The anticipated response to the targeted killing of Fakhrizadeh could therefore be Iran activating Hezbollah or one its other proxies that are part of the so-called “resistance axis” against Israel.

For this reason, Israel has already raised security at its embassies across the globe, while it has asked Jewish communities in the Diaspora to be more vigilant.


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