An Iranian scientist that Israel alleged led the Islamic Republic's military nuclear program until its disbanding in the early 2000s was killed in a shootout Friday, state television said.
Iran's Defense Ministry released a statement to the media confirming the death of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, saying that he died of his injuries in the hospital on Friday.
"Unfortunately, the medical team did not succeed in reviving him, and a few minutes ago, this manager and scientist achieved the high status of martyrdom after years of effort and struggle," the statement said.
Iran said there are "serious indications of Israeli responsibility" in the assassination and it reserves the right to defend itself, the country wrote in a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the UN Security Council on Friday.
"Warning against any adventuristic measures by the United States and Israel against my country, particularly during the remaining period of the current administration of the United States in office, the Islamic Republic of Iran reserves its rights to take all necessary measures to defend its people and secure its interests," Iran's UN envoy, Majid Takht Ravanchi, wrote in the letter, which was seen by Reuters.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said earlier that Israel was likely behind the assassination. "Terrorists murdered an eminent Iranian scientist today. This cowardice—with serious indications of Israeli role—shows desperate warmongering of perpetrators," he wrote on Twitter.
"Iran calls on international community – and especially EU – to end their shameful double standards and condemn this act of state terror."
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The New York Times cited three intelligence officials who say Israel, who made no official statement on Fakhrizadeh's death, was behind the shooting attack.
Israel declined to comment. In the United States, the White House, Pentagon, State Department and CIA all declined to comment. Biden's transition team also declined to comment.
Former CIA director John O. Brennan, who oversaw the organization from 2013 to 2017, called the assassination "a criminal act and highly reckless" on Twitter.
"It risks retaliation and a new round of regional conflict," he wrote. "Iranian leaders would be wise to wait for the return of responsible American leadership on the global stage and to resist the urge to respond against perceived culprits."
He added, "I do not know whether a foreign government authorized or carried out the the murder of Fakhrizadeh. Such an act of state-sponsored terrorism would be a flagrant violation of international law and encourage more governments to carry out lethal attacks against foreign officials."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once called out the scientist in a news conference saying: “Remember that name.” Israel declined to immediately comment on the killing of Fakhrizadeh, as is routine for foreign reports.
Fars news said witnesses in Absard, east of the capital, heard the sound of an explosion and then machine gun fire. The attack targeted a car that Fakhrizadeh was in, the agency said, adding that those wounded, including Fakhrizadeh's bodyguards, were later taken to a local hospital.
State television on its website later published a photograph of security forces blocking off the road. Photos and video shared online showed a Nissan sedan with bullet holes through windshield and blood pooled on the road.
Hossein Salami, chief commander of the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, appeared to acknowledge the attack on Fakhrizadeh.
“Assassinating nuclear scientists is the most violent confrontation to prevent us from reaching modern science,” Salami tweeted.
Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier General Amir Hatami tweeted on Friday that the attack displayed "the depth of enemies' hatred" towards the Islamic Republic."
Hossein Dehghan, an adviser to Iran's supreme leader and a presidential candidate in Iran's 2021 election, issued a warning on Twitter. "In the last days of their gambling ally’s political life, the Zionists seek to intensify and increase pressure on Iran to wage a full-blown war," Dehghan wrote, appearing to refer to U.S. President Donald Trump.
“We will descend like lightning on the killers of this oppressed martyr and we will make them regret their actions!”
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack. However, Iranian media all noted the interest that Netanyahu had previously shown in Fakhrizadeh.
Israel has long been suspected of carrying out a series of targeted killings of Iranian nuclear scientists nearly a decade ago.
At least four scientists were killed between 2010 and 2012 in what Tehran said was a program of assassinations aimed at sabotaging its nuclear energy program. Iran hanged one man in 2012 over the killings, saying he had links to Israel.
In 2014, four Syrian nuclear scientists were killed near Damascus after gunmen opened fire on their bus. A Syria war monitor said an Iranian nuclear scientist was also killed in the attack.
The area around Absard is filled with vacation villas for the Iranian elite with a view of Mount Damavand, the highest peak in the country. Roads on Friday, part of the Iranian weekend, were emptier than normal due to a lockdown over the coronavirus pandemic, offering his attackers a chance to strike with fewer people around.
Immediately after reports began to surface, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran spokesman was quoted in the state-run Iranian Students News Agency saying that no such incident took place. The commander of the Iran Revolutionary Guard, meanwhile, said after the report surfaced that Iran will avenge the killings of its nuclear scientists, as it had in the past.
Fakhrizadeh led Iran's so-called “Amad,” or “Hope” program. In 2018, Israel unveiled some 55,000 pages of documents about it.
Israel and the West have alleged it was a military operation looking at the feasibility of building a nuclear weapon in Iran. Tehran long has maintained its nuclear program is peaceful.
The International Atomic Energy Agency says that “Amad” program ended in the early 2000s. IAEA inspectors now monitor Iranian nuclear sites as part of Iran's now-unraveling nuclear deal with world powers.
Fakhrizadeh has the rare distinction of being the only Iranian scientist named in the International Atomic Energy Agency's 2015 "final assessment" of open questions about Iran's nuclear program and whether it was aimed at developing a nuclear bomb.
The IAEA's report said that he oversaw activities "in support of a possible military dimension to (Iran's) nuclear program" within the so-called Amad Program.
The United States imposed sanctions on Fakhrizadeh in 2008, and last year imposed sanctions on the organization he headed, known by its Farsi acronym SPND. The Shahid Karimi group works on missile- and explosive-related projects for Iran’s Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research.
The U.S. Treasury Department said that the organization oversees nuclear-relevant research for Iran and is active in the training of new scientists.
The Trump administration is planning to further tighten its sanctions on Iran before President-elect Joe Biden enters office and returns to the Iran nuclear deal.
Tensions between Washington and Tehran have risen since Trump abandoned Obama's 2015 Iran nuclear deal, and restored harsh economic sanctions to pressure Tehran to negotiate deeper curbs on its nuclear program, ballistic missile development and support for regional proxy forces.