Iran's chief military nuclear scientist was killed in a terror attack in Absard, near capital Tehran, on Friday, a development that potentially escalates tension in the Persian Gulf amid rumors about a possible US strike on Iran before President Donald Trump exits office.
The Iranian defense ministry issued a statement on late Friday, confirming the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadhe, the architect of Iran's military nuclear programme.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called the killing an "act of state terror". Iran's defense ministry explained that Fakhrizadhe was targeted by armed terrorists as he was travelling in a vehicle. There was a clash between the attackers and his bodyguards, and Fakhrizadeh was severely injured and rushed to hospital, where he died.
According to Iranian media reports, the attackers had opened fire on the scientist travelling in the car in Damavand county. Meanwhile, Iran's Fars news agency said the attack was followed by a car explosion and quoted witnesses as saying that 'three to four possible terrorists were killed.
This is the second majhor for blow for Iran this year, following the killing of Qassem Soleimani, the most senior commander of the Quds Forces, in a US air strike in Baghdad.
Iran straightly blamed Israel for the attack. "Terrorists murdered an eminent Iranian scientist today. This cowardice—with serious indications of Israeli role—shows desperate warmongering of perpetrators," foreign minister Zarid tweeted.
Israel and the US did not comment on the Iranian claims, the Time magazine reported. However, media reports quickly pointed out that Fakhrizadhe has long been in the crosshairs of Israel.
'Remember that name, Fakhrizadeh'
Two years ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had made a sinister reference to his name. "Remember that name, Fakhrizadeh," Netanyahu had said at one news conference. Israel has a history of carrying out targeted killings of nuclear scientists inside Iran. According to BBC, four Iranian nuclear scientists were assassinated between 2010 and 2012.
Immediately after the attack killed the scientist, a top Iranian official said arch foe Israel was behind the attack. "In the last days of the political life of their ... ally (Trump), the Zionists seek to intensify pressure on Iran and create a full-blown war," Hossein Dehghan, a military adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, said.
He vowed retribution for the killing of Fakhrizadeh. "We will strike as thunder at the killers of this oppressed martyr and will make them regret their action," he said.
The killing of Fakhrizadeh comes barely a few days after a rumored meeting between Netanyahu and Saudi Arabian's Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in the Neom city in the presence of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The secret meeting came in the backdrop of reports that Iran started stockpiling low-enriched uranium and enriching to a purity above the level permitted under the terms of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
Media reports citing Saudi sources said Netanyahu persuaded MBS to execute an attack on Iran, but the de facto Saudi ruler had refused to accept the plan. "In the meeting, Netanyahu was advocating hitting Iran. Pompeo did not commit either way," a Saudi source told the Middle East Eye.