Prominent Iranian nuclear scientist killed in ambush attack, bringing threats of revenge

The IDF unveiled Ford F350 pickup trucks that could be controlled remotely in 2016, saying they would soon be outfitted to carry machine guns that could be fired remotely

By Kareem FahimJoby Warrick and Miriam Berger on November 28, 2020

ISTANBUL — One of Iran’s most prominent and well-guarded nuclear scientists was killed Friday in a daytime ambush on a rural road outside Tehran, an attack Iran’s foreign minister blamed on Israel and that sharply raised regional tensions in the closing weeks of the Trump administration.

The scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was seen as a driving force behind Tehran’s disbanded effort to build a nuclear weapon nearly two decades ago. His role in Iran’s current programs — reactors and uranium enrichment — was less direct and analysts said the killing would likely have a limited impact on Tehran’s nuclear capabilities.

It also underscored one of the many challenges ahead for the Biden administration as it looks to reset U.S. policies toward Iran after President Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign.

Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, described the attack as the work of “state terror” and implicated Israel as having a possible role. Officials in Israel had no comment.

The attack — which Iranian news agencies said involved a car bomb and gunmen — recalled the shadowy killings of Iranian nuclear scientists a decade ago and exposed holes in Iran’s security and intelligence agencies.

Just this year, it was the third high-profile attack to shake Tehran’s leadership.

In January, a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad killed Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military commander and head of its special-operations forces abroad. And in August, Israeli agents acting on behalf of American officials assassinated a senior al-Qaeda official in Tehran, according to a U.S. official.

Fakhrizadeh was once at the pinnacle of Iran’s nuclear program, including an effort to develop nuclear arms that U.S. intelligence says was scrapped in 2003. But his latest role was less directly involved in Iran’s nuclear sites, which include extensive centrifuge labs to enrich uranium.

While Fakhrizadeh had been a key figure in Iran’s bomb program, “that work is all in the past, and there is no reason to expect that if Fakhrizadeh is gone it would have any effect on Iran’s current nuclear program,” said Paul Pillar, a 28-year veteran of the CIA and a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies.

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Analysts said the timing of the attack appeared linked to the impending change of U.S. administrations.

Trump — who withdrew the United States from a nuclear pact that Iran struck with world powers five years ago — has ramped up sanctions and other pressures on Tehran since walking away from the deal aimed at reining in Tehran’s nuclear program. Biden has pledged to work more closely with allies on Iran policies and work to rejoin the nuclear agreement.

Iran has recently increased its stockpile of enriched uranium since the Trump administration pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal. Iran has insisted that the enriched uranium is intended only to power its nuclear energy plants and a research reactor. Iran’s foes counter that it puts the nation closer to producing warhead-grade material.

The Biden team also did not have an immediate comment. U.S. officials had no immediate comment, but Trump retweeted veteran Israeli journalist Yossi Melman, who described the attack as a “major psychological and professional blow for Iran.”

“The operation reflects thinking of those in the Netanyahu government — and/or the Trump administration — who see these next few weeks as their last chance to make relations with Iran as bad as possible, in an effort to spoil the Biden administration’s efforts to return to diplomacy with Tehran,” said Pillar, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

A Middle Eastern intelligence official said Israel was behind the attack. “There was an opportunity and it was taken,” the official said.

Former CIA director John O. Brennan, a strong Trump critic, tweeted that the attack was “a criminal act & highly reckless.”

“It risks lethal retaliation & 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 & to resist the urge to respond against perceived culprits.”

Accounts of Fakhrizadeh’s killing indicated his movements were being tracked and the attack was coordinated.

The semiofficial Tasnim news agency said the attack began with a car bomb that detonated in the path of Fakhrizadeh’s vehicle. Then “terrorists started shooting,” it reported.

But Brig. Gen. Amir Hatami, Iran’s defense minister, described a different chain of events in an interview with Iranian state television, saying the attack started with gunmen opening fire on Fakhrizadeh’s car. A pickup truck about 50 feet away exploded a short time later, he said. The gunfire continued, wounding the scientist and two of his bodyguards.

Fakhrizadeh later died at a hospital, the minister said.

A gray sedan, its windshield riddled by bullet holes, was shown in photos taken by Iranian news agencies at the scene of the attack.

The killing spurred calls from Iranian officials for accountability, or revenge.

“Terrorists murdered an eminent Iranian scientist today,” Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, wrote on Twitter.

Iran has accused Israel and the United States of carrying out similar deadly attacks on nuclear experts in the past.

“This cowardice — with serious indications of Israeli role — shows desperate warmongering of perpetrators,” Zarif tweeted about the death of Fakhrizadeh. He said Iran calls on the international community, especially the European Union, “to end their shameful double standards & condemn this act of state terror.”

The scene of an ambush Friday on a road outside Tehran in which nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed. Iranian news agencies said the attack involved a car bomb and gunmen. (AP)

Hossein Dehghan, a former member of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard and adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, wrote on Twitter: “We will descend like lightning on the killers.”

Fakhrizadeh “was one of the key individuals behind Iran’s nuclear program in the post-revolution era” and was deeply involved in shaping “the weapons phase of the program,” said Ariane Tabatabai, a Middle East fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

“This is very significant politically and symbolically. It again exposes the deep flaws in Iran’s internal security. This is one of many incidents involving Iran’s nuclear program this year and one of several targeted killings on Iranian soil or affecting high-level Iranians,” she said.

Fakhrizadeh was widely regarded as the brains behind Iran’s nuclear program, including Tehran’s clandestine efforts to develop a nuclear bomb in the early 2000s. The physics professor, believed to be about 60 years old, has been identified by intelligence officials as the head of the Amad Plan, the secret nuclear weapons research program that sought to develop as many as six nuclear bombs before Iranian leaders ordered a halt to the program in 2003.

Scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh played a prominent role in Iran’s nuclear weapons program. (Wana News Agency/Reuters)

After the weapons program ended, he continued to supervise successor organizations that continued to employ many, if not most, of the Amad project’s scientists in conducting nuclear-related research, U.S. and Israeli analysts claim.

The current program is “now more focused on maintaining and developing nuclear weaponization capabilities rather than building the weapons themselves, said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington nonprofit that tracks nuclear-weapons proliferation.

He called the attack on Fakhrizadeh a “shocking and disturbing development.”

Formerly a reclusive figure rarely seen in public, Fakhrizadeh has more recently allowed himself to appear on official Iranian websites, including during events held by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Albright said the increased visibility “may have made him more vulnerable, making his movements easier to track.”

Targeted attacks between 2010 and 2012 killed at least four researchers and others with links to Iran’s nuclear program. Tehran accused Israel and the United States of masterminding the attacks as part of a covert war. U.S. officials have denied any role, and Israel has not commented.

In 2011, Darioush Rezaeinejad, an electrical engineer doctoral student whose work involved nuclear applications, was gunned down outside his Tehran apartment.

In 2012, motorcycle riders attached a magnetic bomb that tore apart a car carrying Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, a nuclear scientist working at Iran’s main uranium-enrichment facility in Natanz. Roshan, 32, had planned to attend a memorial for another nuclear researcher, Tehran University professor Masoud Ali Mohammadi, who was killed in a similar pinpoint blast in 2010.

An Iranian man convicted in the Mohammadi attack, who Iran claimed was trained by Israel’s Mossad spy agency, was hanged in 2012.

Berger reported from Beirut and Warrick from Washington. Souad Mekhennet in Washington contributed to this report.

2 thoughts on “Prominent Iranian nuclear scientist killed in ambush attack, bringing threats of revenge

  1. Iran on Covid-19 Crisis:

    Rare voices from Iran’s epic coronavirus outbreak tell of stumbling government, deluged hospitals

    The scale of suffering in one of the world’s largest outbreaks has largely been obscured.

    By Kareem Fahim and Dalton Bennett on April 10, 2020

    ISTANBUL — Iran has been struck by one of the most severe coronavirus outbreaks in the world. Still, the voices of Iranians affected by the pandemic have remained largely unheard outside the country’s borders. The scale of their suffering has been obscured by often upbeat stories about survivors in Iran’s official media, and by an inscrutable government, many suspects are underplaying the toll.

    Aided by Iranian hospital records obtained by The Washington Post, however, reporters could contact covid-19 survivors and the families of victims. They recounted tales of valiant medical workers, overtaxed hospitals and a government that had been far too slow to raise the alarm.

    “Awareness-building was way too late,” said a young architecture student who was hospitalized. “Many people were already infected.”

    Nearly 70,000 Iranians have tested positive for the virus, and more than 4,000 people have died, including some of Iran’s most prominent officials, according to the government health ministry. The human toll has gone largely unremarked upon in Western countries absorbed by the wave of deaths in places such as Italy, Spain and the United States.

    The medical records, from 56 hospitals in Tehran, include detailed information about thousands of coronavirus-related cases between late February, when Iran reported its first infection, and mid-March. The hospitals — which represent about a quarter of the approximately 200 medical facilities in the city admitting virus-related cases — tested at least 5,500 patients in that period. Just under half tested positive, while many more tests appeared to be pending.

    Beyond the numbers, the records provide a glimpse of a nation reeling from its latest terrible trial and seized with anxiety and confusion. Some interviewed people were not even aware that the hospital records showed that their relatives had tested positive for coronavirus.

    In interviews, a farmer said he took his sick father to a Tehran hospital and was horrified at the chaos they saw inside.

    An infected Iranian student said she feared she had passed the coronavirus along to her already an ailing father.

    A widow recalled how Iran’s failing economy had already left her husband hopeless and no longer interested in caring for himself, long before the virus took his life.

    In the hospital, she said, “We saw many families losing dear ones.”

    The following accounts have been edited for clarity and were provided on partial or complete anonymity because of the sensitivity of discussing public matters in Iran.

    I got infected in Mashhad in late February. We would not have travelled to other cities if we knew the risk was so high. There was not enough awareness-raising at the time. Now there is, but I think it is too late.

    I went to five different doctors, and they all said it was influenza. Finally, I was hospitalized in Loghman Hospital with severe respiratory symptoms. Then I was moved to Modarres Hospital, where the medical crew was amazing. Although they were swamped, they showed a lot of attention and care. The medical crew in both hospitals were really caring. But it was not that crowded at that time.

    I was in the ICU for five days with my mother. She had chest pain that they told her was indicative of the virus. It took six days for the test results to come out. Hers was negative, but mine was positive. I live with my mother in a flat that is 40 square meters. I had a lot of contact with family and friends before hospitalization. But nobody got it from me.

    I was in a wheelchair for a week. I could not even take one step.

    Since the day I was released, I left the house only once, and that was to go to the hospital. I was told that I would carry the virus for 14 days after recovery. We do not even let my sister enter the house. Twenty-four days have passed, but I still have kidney pain, shortness of breath and fatigue. Walking and day-to-day chores make me tired.

    I do not know much about life outside. I just hear from the media that they are taking it seriously now, although I think it’s too late.

    A 50-year-old farmer from a village outside Tehran took his elderly father to a hospital in the capital after trouble breathing. Frightened by what they saw in the hospital, they didn’t stay. The son was unaware that hospital tests showed his father had tested positive.

    Our village has about a hundred families. My dad had respiratory symptoms in February, but he suffers from lung and heart disorders anyway. We took him to Tehran. They wanted to hospitalize him, but with the atmosphere I saw, I did not allow this.

    The nurses were panicking. One of them was shouting, “Corona! Corona!” — pointing to my dad. The way they were disinfecting beds was violent, and nobody was explaining to me what was happening. I decided to take him home. Thank God he is fine now.

    Nobody is infected in our village. We had difficulties getting permission from the governor to close our roads. Finally, today we finished blocking the last open road.

    Everything that happened in the past week should have been done 40 days ago, two months ago. It has been too late. Maybe it was because of [the anniversary of Iran’s revolution], maybe because of the election. [Both were in February.] Nobody knows why they waited so long to take these actions.

    My dad got corona and was released from the hospital at the beginning of Nowruz [the Iranian New Year last month]. I haven’t seen him for two months now. He is under a lot of pressure, both physically and psychologically. When they decided to release him, he still had symptoms. He has kidney failure, so he can’t be quarantined at home because he needs kidney dialysis every few days.

    He should not have been released at all, but they said they do not have space for him anymore. It is tough for him.

    We don’t know how he got infected. It could have been from me. Around mid-February, I started to have a sore throat and then was sick for two weeks. I went to three doctors and could not diagnose me — the third doctor said it was H1N1 [influenza]. Because he goes to the hospital regularly for dialysis, he could have gotten it from someone there. I haven’t visited him, to not put my mother, who I live with and who has other illnesses, at risk.

    Some hospitals had management problems — releasing people with their consent, while they still needed medical care. Others were working really hard and from their hearts.

    Awareness-building was way too late, and many people were already infected. Even now, they resist announcing quarantine.

    He did not have a fever. He did not have any cold symptoms. He only had short breaths. After we took him to the hospital, his fever started. His kidneys stopped working, and he had dialysis. My husband passed away because of a heart attack, but he could have received better medical care if it was not for the load of corona patients and the chaos in the hospital.

    I do not think the real statistics are being released, mostly because they don’t want people to panic. But I think people need to know the real statistics. When my husband went to Loghman Hospital, we saw many families losing a dear one. Developed countries treat their patients better, although many people are victims of this virus everywhere in the world now.

    Alireza was born in Tehran and had a small shop for years. In 2016, with the economic recession in Iran, he went bankrupt and could not get back on his feet. He became very depressed and hopeless about life in the past four years and did not care about himself. He loved having friends and relatives over and was very generous, but after the bankruptcy, he felt alone. He felt neither his friends and family nor the government, supported him.

    We have two children, a 17-year-old son and an 18-year-old daughter. My son is introverted and more patient than my daughter. She had a special connection with her dad and cries and mourns all the time these days. She has a lot of anger and blames her aunt and me for taking her father to the hospital.

    I loved my husband and am still shocked by his death. He was okay one day and had the shortness of breath and passed away in 48 hours. I still expect him to come home at any time.

    Bennett reported from Washington.


  2. Why A Remote-Controlled Machine Gun Was The Perfect Weapon For Assassinating Iranian Nuclear Scientist

    By David Hambling

    A remote-controlled machine gun was used to assassinate nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, according to Iranian officials. If true, this would be the highest-profile use of such a weapon. Still, it’s only a minor step technically, as improvised robot weapons are becoming increasingly common for terrorists and insurgents.

    According to Iranian news agency FARS, the entire operation was carried out last Friday from a distance, allegedly by Israel, with no personnel at the attack scene. This is a big shift from earlier Iranian reports claiming that a number of gunmen opened fire – up to 12 of them including two snipers, according to one account.

    “No individual was present at the site,” according to the latest version of events presented by Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.

    Remote weapons have a long history. Back in WWII, the B-29 Superfortress was radical for removing the gunners from the five turrets located at different points on the aircraft instead of aiming the guns from a plexiglass dome ‘sighting station.’ As the gunner pointed an aiming device, an early computer — General Electric’s Central Fire Control System — calculated the required offset to direct the guns to where they should be pointing. The remote turrets, each with two .50-caliber machine guns, were deadly: one B-29 shot down seven Japanese fighters in a single sortie. Such remote turrets continued in use right up to early versions of the U.S Air Force’s B-52 bomber.

    The technology for remote weapons took a step forward when television cameras gave the operator a gun’s-eye view. In recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, insurgents often attacked the machine-gunner on top of an armored vehicle with IEDs or sniper fire. This led to the human ‘top gunner’ being been largely replaced by a system called the Common Remotely Operated Weapon Station, or CROWS, so the same job could be carried out from under armor. Norwegian-based Kongsberg has supplied some 20,000 remote systems, which can support .50-caliber or 7.62mm machine guns or grenade launchers, with options on the day, night or thermal imaging cameras. The systems are fully stabilized, so the gunner can keep a machine gun on target even from a vehicle moving over rough terrain.

    Simultaneously, a quite different type of remote-controlled weapon has emerged at the bottom of the market. These are detailed in a 2016 report for the U.S. Army by Robert Bunker and Alma Keshavarz, “Terrorist and Insurgent Teleoperated Sniper Rifles and Machine Guns.”

    The report reveals a subculture of engineers and makers working on their inventions in garage workshops across a wide area.

    “The early and most prolific adopters have been the Free Syrian Army operating in and around the city of Aleppo, but the weapons have also spread to Shia militias and Kurdish fighters in Iraq, and jihadist rebel groups including the Islamic State,” according to the report.

    While the technology is nowhere near as sophisticated as the CROWS on U.S. Army vehicles, it is certainly effective. These remote weapons achieve the goal of firing a weapon accurately. The weapons vary wildly, from assault rifles to light machine guns to .50-caliber sniper rifles. Some discussed in the report were on fixed mounts, others on basic wheeled or tracked robots. Control was generally via a cable, with the gunner only a few meters away, but some were operated by radio from longer range. Servomotors, commercially available for electronics projects and robotics, provide the muscle-power to aim the weapon.

    Such remote weapons, now widely used across the Middle East, are likely to have inspired the assassins. Tactically they provide a stable, accurate firing platform, and without the stress of being shot at, remote gunners tend to be more calculating in their shots. It also has two key advantages compared to using gunmen on the ground. One is that there was no risk of having an operative killed or captured in a gunfight with the target’s bodyguards – there were reportedly at least two carloads of them.

    The second advantage is that the attack is impossible to trace. According to FARS, the remote-controlled weapon was positioned in a Nissan truck by the side of the road. After the weapon had fired several bursts from a range of 150 meters, hitting Fakhrizadeh several times (a bodyguard was also hit), a large bomb destroyed the Nissan – and presumably all the evidence of who had carried out the attack. This anonymity is exactly the logic that has led many nations, including Iran, to use unmanned aircraft rather than manned ones for particular missions.

    While the Iranians claim to have found evidence at the site linking the attack to the Israeli military, this seems unlikely given how it was apparently carried out. This will make it much harder to win international support, or to gain domestic backing for retaliatory action of escalation. And, given the lack of evidence, it is entirely possible that the action was not carried out by Israel at all, but by some other actor who covered their tracks thoroughly, and who may have wished Israel to take the blame.

    Remote-controlled warfare is the way of the 21st century. And now, it seems, it is not just drones in the sky you need to watch out for.

    – Forbes

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