Everything We Know So Far About The Assassination Of 'The Father Of Iran's Nuclear Bomb'

Assassins killed Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was involved in Iranian nuclear weapons work stretching back decades, in a city near Tehran.

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A top Iranian nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who has been described in the past as the "father of Iran's nuclear bomb," was assassinated today, reportedly by Israel's top intelligence agency Mossad, in a complex attack on the car he was traveling in. This follows reports that President Donald Trump's Administration has been considering striking facilities related to Iran's controversial nuclear program before President-Elect Joe Biden takes office next year. The Biden camp has expressed interest in rejoining a multi-national agreement regarding nuclear activities, which is controversial in its own right and that Trump had withdrawn from in 2018.

The attack that killed Fakhrizadeh took place in the city of Absard, situated less than 50 miles east of the country's capital Tehran. The exact chain of events is not entirely clear, but a report from the semi-official Far News Agency, linked to Iran's powerful Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC), said witnesses had reported hearing an explosion followed by a burst of gunfire. 

Videos and photos that have now emerged on social media show a black Nissan, which appears to be the vehicle Fakhrizadeh was traveling in, riddled with bullet holes and with a pool of blood on the ground near the car. Other images show the hulk of another vehicle that appears to have been hit with an explosion, as was initially heard, and this looks to be how the ambushers brought the Nissan to a stop before shooting at it. It's not clear if the car that got blown up was a vehicle-based improvised explosive device or if the apparent bomb had been placed along the side of the road. 

Fars reported that three to four people had died in the attack, including the perpetrators, but it has been difficult to independently verify who died or the total body count. It's also unclear if Fars included Fakhrizadeh, who appears to have succumbed to his wounds sometime after the attack, or any other subsequent fatalities, in its figures. This also explains conflicting initial reports that the nuclear scientist was still alive. Iranian authorities have since confirmed via state media that he is, in fact, dead. So far, no group has claimed responsibility for the attack.

To say that Fakhrizadeh's death is significant, both from a practical and a symbolic perspective, would be an understatement. U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies have put him at the top of Iranian nuclear efforts tied to the development of an atomic bomb that first began in 1989. He is said to have run Project Amad, the country's overarching nuclear weapons program, which officially came to a halt in 2003.

Since then, Fakhrizadeh, who was also an IRGC officer, has been in charge of a number of other nuclear research and development efforts that Iran has claimed are ostensibly oriented toward peaceful, civilian applications. The U.S. and Israeli governments have asserted that these programs are dual-use and serve as a cover for continued nuclear weapons development. 

Most recently, Fakhrizadeh was said to be head of the Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research, also known by its Farsi acronym SPND, which the United States had sanctioned over ties to nuclear weapons work. In 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu focused significant attention on him in a 2018 public presentation of a literal warehouse-load of nuclear-related documents that Israeli intelligence operatives had then recently extracted from Iran. 

The United Nation's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said after Netanyahu's press briefing that it has seen no evidence that Iran continued work on nuclear weapons after 2009, six years after the official end of Project Amad. At the same time, IAEA reports on the matter catalog multiple instances where the Iranian government denied the existence of nuclear activities that it then either admitted to or were otherwise conclusively proven to have taken place. 

The Iranian government has also often denied the IAEA access to certain sites and individuals, including a facility with reported ties to nuclear work in Parchin, which U.N. investigators only visited for the first time in 2015. Evidence obtained during that inspection included particles of uranium, which the IAEA said were of negligible significance, but which President Barack Obama's Administration reportedly determined pointed to past atomic work at that site. It remains unclear when any such activity at Parchin might have taken place. 

The New York Times has reported that the Israeli intelligence Agency Mossad was behind Fakhrizadeh's killing. It's important to remember that Mossad is also linked to four successful assassinations and one attempted assassination of other Iranian nuclear scientists between 2010 and 2012. Two of these killings involved bombs attached to the victim's car via magnets, while another involved a bomb attached to a nearby motorbike. A third was carried out by gun-wielding assassins on a motorcycle.

Mossad may have also killed another nuclear scientist in 2007. Iran claimed to have thwarted another assassination attempt on a nuclear scientist in 2015, but did not identify that individual who had been targeted or any other details about the plot. Iran's nuclear program was also notoriously hit by the Stuxnet computer virus, a reported joint U.S.-Israeli operation, in 2010.

It's also worth noting that Mossad was tied to a reported assassination of a senior Al Qaeda terrorist, Abu Muhammad Al Masri, in Iran in August. Al Masri, alleged to be one of those responsible for planning the attacks on U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, was reportedly living in the country under an assumed identity provided by the Iranian government, which was protecting him, but also appears to have been keeping him effectively detained as leverage over the international terrorist group.

There were also a string of mysterious explosions and fires at various sites in Iran earlier this year, including a blast at a facility containing advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges in Natanz. There were subsequent reports that at least some of these incidents had been attacks carries out by Israeli operatives, possibly with the assistance of American intelligence agencies.

Separate from its nuclear program, Iran, as well as its proxy groups in the Middle East, have been the target of multiple other assassinations and other operations, many linked to Israel, in recent years. The most notable of these was the U.S. drone strike that killed General Qassem Soleimani, then head of the IRGC's Quds Force, its primary arm for conducting activities outside of Iran, outside Baghdad International Airport in Iraq in January.

Killing Fakhrizadeh would certainly remove one of Iran's most seasoned nuclear experts from any ongoing nuclear weapons work, though the country's nuclear program is much bigger at this point than any one person. It would also send a message that even the most senior nuclear and other officials in the country are not safe from attack.

There are also concerns now that the Fakhrizadeh's death may have an impact on future negotiations between the incoming Biden Administration and Iranian officials over the U.S. government's possible return to the so-called Iran Deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which representatives of the United States, as well as China, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, had signed in 2015. Iran has steadily rolled back its compliance with the JCPOA since the Trump Administration withdrew from the deal in 2018, including the restarting of uranium enrichment above previously agreed levels. The U.S. government under Trump has continually sought for the remaining participants, especially its European allies, to drop out of the deal, as well. 

If Israel was indeed behind to assassination, as seems very possible, if not plausible, it could also simply reflect the desire of the current Israeli government to conduct these kinds of covert operations now, while the United States is more likely to acquiesce to them being carried out, or even support them, directly or indirectly. The Trump Administration has been a particularly vocal supporter of Israel and has taken a very hard-line approach to Iran, which seems very likely to change in many ways after Joe Biden takes office.

The assassination also comes just days after a report from Axios that said Israeli officials were worried about the potential of a U.S. strike of some kind against Iran's nuclear program before Biden takes office next year. The New York Times had reported earlier in November that Trump had at least recently inquired about the possibility of launching a military strike on Natanz. On Nov. 21, two U.S. Air Force B-52 bombers, using the callsigns Warbird 1 and Warbird 2, flew a long-range, round-trip mission to the Middle East and back from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, in what looked to be a signal aimed squarely at Iran.

For their part, the IRGC has already threatened to retaliate in some fashion against whoever is behind this assassination. "In the last days of the political life of their ... ally [understood to mean President Trump's Administration], the Zionists [Israel] seek to intensify pressure on Iran and create a full-blown war," Commander Hossein Dehghan, an advisor to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and a former Minister of Defense and IRGC office, Tweeted out following Fakhrizadeh's death.

All told, the killing of the Father of Iran's nuclear bomb could have serious ramifications well beyond the country's nuclear ambitions. More such attacks, or other kinds of covert operations, may well be yet to come in the eight or so weeks between now and Biden's inauguration.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com