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Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Photo: EPA-EFE

Iran’s supreme leader vows retaliation for killing of scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh

  • Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Iran’s first priority after the killing was the ‘definitive punishment of the perpetrators and those who ordered it’
  • Fakhrizadeh died on Friday after gunman ambushed him in his car near Tehran
Iran’s supreme leader on Saturday called for the “definitive punishment” of those behind the killing of a scientist linked to Tehran’s disbanded military nuclear programme, a slaying the Islamic republic has blamed on Israel.
Israel, long suspected of killing scientists a decade ago amid tensions over Tehran’s nuclear programme, has yet to comment on the killing Friday of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. However, the attack bore the hallmarks of a carefully planned, military-style ambush.
The slaying threatens to renew tensions between the US and Iran in the waning days of President Donald Trump’s term, just as President-elect Joe Biden has suggested his administration could return to Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers from which Trump earlier withdrew. The Pentagon announced early Saturday that it sent the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier back into the Middle East.

In a statement, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called Fakhrizadeh “the country’s prominent and distinguished nuclear and defensive scientist.”

Khamenei said Iran’s first priority after the killing was the “definitive punishment of the perpetrators and those who ordered it.” He did not elaborate.

Slain Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Photo: Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP
Speaking to a meeting of his government’s coronavirus task force earlier Saturday, President Hassan Rowhani blamed Israel for the killing.

Rowhani said that Fakhrizadeh’s death would not stop its nuclear programme, something Khamenei said as well. Iran’s civilian nuclear programme has continued its experiments and now enriches uranium up to 4.5 per cent, far below weapons-grade levels of 90 per cent.

But analysts have compared Fakhrizadeh to being on a par with Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who led the US’ Manhattan Project in second world war that created the atomic bomb.

“We will respond to the assassination of Martyr Fakhrizadeh in a proper time,” Rowhani said.

He added: “The Iranian nation is smarter than falling into the trap of the Zionists. They are thinking to create chaos.”

Suspected Iran nuclear mastermind assassinated near Tehran

Israel’s N12 news channel said Israeli embassies had been put on high alert after the Iranian threats of retaliation. Friday’s attack happened in Absard, a village just east of the capital that is a retreat for the Iranian elite. Iranian state television said an old truck with explosives hidden under a load of wood blew up near a sedan carrying Fakhrizadeh.

As Fakhrizadeh’s sedan stopped, at least five gunmen emerged and raked the car with rapid fire, the semi-official Tasnim news agency said.

Fakhrizadeh died at a hospital after doctors and paramedics couldn’t revive him. Others wounded included Fakhrizadeh’s bodyguards. Photos and video shared online showed a Nissan sedan with bullet holes in the windscreen and blood pooled on the road.

The damaged car of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh after it was attacked near Tehran. Photo: IRIB/AFP
Hours after the attack, the Pentagon announced it had brought the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier back into the Middle East, an unusual move as the carrier already spent months in the region. It cited the drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan and Iraq as the reason for the decision, saying “it was prudent to have additional defensive capabilities in the region to meet any contingency.”
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. That and other targeted killings happened at the time that the so-called Stuxnet virus, believed to be an Israeli and American creation, destroyed Iranian centrifuges.

Those assaults occurred at the height of Western fears over Iran’s nuclear programme. Tehran long has insisted its programme is peaceful. However, Fakhrizadeh led Iran’s so-called AMAD programme that Israel and the West have alleged was a military operation looking at the feasibility of building a nuclear weapon. The International Atomic Energy Agency says that “structured programme” ended in 2003.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Iran blames Israel for killing of top nuclear scientist