A high-ranking Iranian nuclear physicist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was assassinated in an ambush near Iran’s capital, Tehran, on Friday.
Fakhrizadeh was shot “by terrorists” in his vehicle in Absard, a suburb in eastern Tehran, later succumbing to his wounds in what was described as a “martyr’s death”, according to Iran’s foreign ministry.
There has been no claim of responsibility for the killing of Fakhrizadeh, who had long been suspected by Western and Israeli intelligence of leading the nation’s military nuclear programme until its disbanding in the early 2000s.
But some have pointed the finger at Israel and the United States for the assassination, which threatens to increase tensions between Tehran and Washington in the final days of the Donald Trump presidency.
Western officials and experts believe Fakhrizadeh played a pivotal role in suspected Iranian work in the past to develop the means to assemble a nuclear warhead behind the facade of a declared civilian uranium enrichment programme.
Iran denies ever having sought to develop a nuclear weapon.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei said Iran’s first priority after the killing was the “definitive punishment of the perpetrators and those who ordered it”, while President Hassan Rouhani accused Israel of being behind the assassination.
“Once again, the evil hands of global arrogance were stained with the blood of the mercenary usurper Zionist regime,” Rouhani said in a statement.
The country’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also accused Israel of carrying out the attack.
Cabinet minister for Settlement Affairs Tzachi Hanegbi said he had “no clue” who was behind the Fakhrizadeh killing.
“I have no clue who did it. It’s not that my lips are sealed because I’m being responsible, I really have no clue,” Hanegbi, a confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told N12’s Meet the Press.
The UN condemned Fakhrizadeh’s killing while urging restraint in order to avoid an “escalation of tensions”.
“We urge restraint and the need to avoid any actions that could lead to an escalation of tensions in the region,” a UN spokesman said. “We condemn any assassination or extrajudicial killing.”
The Turkish foreign ministry condemned Fakhrizadeh’s killing as a “heinous assassination” and called for the perpetrators of the attack to be held accountable.
In a statement on Saturday, the foreign ministry also urged “all sides to act with common sense and restraint”.
Turkey’s parliamentary speaker meanwhile referred to those responsible for the killing as “terrorist”.
“The assassination of the Iranian scientist was an act of terrorism. Whether it was committed by an illegal or a “legal” organization or a state makes no difference,” Mustafa Sentop said on Twitter.
‘Combustible’ period before Joe Biden takes office could complicate US president-elect’s plan to restart diplomacy with Iran, analysts say.
The assassination of a top Iranian nuclear scientist will make United States President-elect Joe Biden’s ability to restart diplomacy between Washington and Tehran even more difficult, US-based analysts said on Friday, just hours after Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed.
Neither Trump nor Biden commented directly on Fakhrizadeh’s assassination on Friday, though the Republican president retweeted Israeli writer Yossi Melman, who said the scientist’s death “is a major psychological and professional blow for Iran”.
Top current and former US officials publicly raised concerns, however, including ex-CIA Director John Brennan, who called the attack “a criminal act & highly reckless”.
“Iranian leaders would be wise to wait for the return of responsible American leadership on the global stage & to resist the urge to respond against perceived culprits,” Brennan tweeted.
Democratic Senator Chris Murphy said he had not been briefed on the assassination of Fakhrizadeh, but that “every time America or an ally assassinates a foreign leader outside a declaration of war, we normalize the tactic as a tool of statecraft.”