“A scientist has been the victim of an assassination attempt in an armed attack by unknown people,” Iranian state television said Friday, during the frantic minutes following a drive-by shooting with potentially serious geopolitical ramifications.
The scientist was Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. And while the details were initially sketchy, the assumption among both the media and Iranian officials was that the “unknown people” were Israeli operatives. At least three intelligence sources subsequently confirmed Israel’s role in comments to The New York Times.
“Iranian state television said an old truck with explosives hidden under a load of wood blew up near a sedan carrying Fakhrizadeh,” AP recounted, citing Tasnim. “As Fakhrizadeh’s sedan stopped, at least five gunmen emerged and raked the car with rapid fire.”
The attack, carried out near Tehran, wasn’t as brazen as the US drone strike that killed Qassem Soleimani on Iraqi soil early this year, but it nevertheless marked a serious escalation and comes as the world ponders the future of relations between the US and Iran under a Joe Biden administration.
Javad Zarif immediately blamed Israel, calling the shooting a “murder” and the perpetrators “terrorists.” Zarif alleged “serious indications of [an] Israeli role” and called on the EU “to end their shameful double standards and condemn” what he decried as an “act of state terror.”
Fakhrizadeh was long known as the mastermind of Iran’s scrapped nuclear weapons program, and played prominently in Benjamin Netanyahu’s 2018 “Iran lied” presentation, delivered around the time Donald Trump pulled the US out of the nuclear deal. Below is the relevant passage from that presentation for anyone who perhaps doesn’t follow these matters closely:
There’s another document from the archive. This is following the new directive of Iran’s Minister of Defense, Mr. Shamkhani, today he’s the director of the National Security Council. Following the new directive of Iran’s Minister of Defense, the work would be split into two parts, covert and overt. A key part of the plan was to form new organizations to continue the work. This is how Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, head of Project Amad, put it. Remember that name, Fakhrizadeh. So here’s his directive, right here. And he says: “The general aim is to announce the closure of Project Amad,” but then he adds, “Special activities”–you know what that is–“Special activities will be carried out under the title of scientific know-how developments.” And in fact, this is exactly what Iran proceeded to do.
Fakhrizadeh, 59, was named in a key IAEA assessment and identified as the scientist in charge of what the agency euphemistically described as “a possible military dimension” to the country’s nuclear activities.
In the passage above, Netanyahu essentially alleged that once the weapons program was mothballed, Fakhrizadeh’s “special activities” within the Defense Ministry were just another manifestation of the nuke program.
“So this atomic archive clearly shows that Iran planned, at the highest levels, to continue work related to nuclear weapons under different guises and using the same personnel,” Netanyahu said, referencing the infamous cache of secret documents Israel said it obtained.
Apparently, doctors attempted to save Fakhrizadeh after Friday’s attack, to no avail. The visual (below) was released by Fars along with three additional pictures and a video, some of which were graphic.
Barring a plausible alternative explanation, this was almost surely the work of Mossad, which was suspected of assassinations and attempted hits targeting a number of Fakhrizadeh’s deputies some years back.
“The attack comes just days before the 10-year anniversary of the killing of Iranian nuclear scientist Majid Shahriari that Tehran also blamed on Israel,” AP went on to say Friday.
Officially, Fakhrizadeh was an academic, but nobody ever believed that. During the last Bush administration, the CIA debunked the flimsy cover story, despite one hardly needing to be an intelligence official to doubt its plausibility.
If suspicions that Israel was behind Friday’s attack are true, it’s probably not a stretch to say that the Trump administration was aware of the plans, if perhaps not the exact timing and logistics. Trump retweeted a post from an Israeli journalist about the killing. It read: “His death is a major psychological and professional blow for Iran.”
Fakhrizadeh’s assassination comes just 10 days after The New York Times said Trump had to be “dissuaded” earlier this month from launching strikes against Iran’s main nuclear site. Apparently, even Mike Pompeo warned the outgoing president that such a move would be too risky. According to the Times, Pompeo, Mark Milley, and Trump’s acting Defense Secretary all told the president “that a strike against Iran’s facilities could easily escalate into a broader conflict in the last weeks of [his] presidency.”
Also this month, The Times reported that Israeli operatives on a motorcycle gunned down al-Qaeda’s Abu Muhammad al-Masri in a suburb of Tehran over the summer. The reporting laid bare the truth behind a convoluted cover story aimed at keeping the details of the operation, sanctioned by the US, a secret. Al-Masri’s daughter, Miriam, the widow of Hamza bin Laden, was also killed in the operation. (Iran is, of course, a sworn enemy of Sunni extremists, but the regime’s relationship with al-Qaeda is “complicated,” to put it mildly.)
This will become Biden’s problem on January 20, and it will likely increase the threat level to US personnel in Iraq. Trump this month ordered what some critics described as a haphazard reduction in US troops in the country. On Thursday, Reuters reported that the Iraqi military plans to give Abu Zainab al-Lami, a US-sanctioned member of Iran’s powerful militia in the country, a senior role in the Iraqi army.
January 3 marks the anniversary of Soleimani’s death.