Iran vows to continue work of assassinated nuclear scientist

James Rothwell
·3-min read
President Hassan Rouhani chairing a cabinet meeting in the capital Tehran - AFP
President Hassan Rouhani chairing a cabinet meeting in the capital Tehran - AFP

Iran has vowed to continue the work of slain nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh after he was assassinated near Tehran on Friday, as the regime threatened to strike Israel in retaliation for his death. 

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, said Iran would “punish” Fakhrizadeh’s killers as he suggested that a new figure would take up the reins of the nuclear programme, which US and Israeli officials say is working on a nuclear warhead. 

In a statement on Twitter, Khamenei said one of Iran’s top priorities was to “continue the martyr’s scientific and technological efforts in all the sectors where he was active," referring to Fakhrizadeh. 

Israel has placed its embassies on high alert in response to concerns that Iran may launch attacks on its citizens and staff overseas.

Fakhrizadeh was ambushed by assassins on Friday in the town of Absard, near Tehran, where his car was blown up and sprayed with bullets.

Iranian officials said he later died from his injuries in hospital and described him as a “martyr” of the Islamic Republic.

According to Israel, which has declined to comment on reports that it carried out the assassination, Fakhrizadeh was the leader of Iran’s nuclear weapons programme.

This photo released by the semi-official Fars News Agency shows the scene where Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed - AP
This photo released by the semi-official Fars News Agency shows the scene where Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed - AP

The mysterious scientist, a commander in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC], was known as “the father of the Iranian bomb” and was often compared to Robert Oppenheimer of the Manhattan Project.

Friday’s high-profile assassination will create more difficulties for President-elect Joe Biden, who reportedly hopes to adopt a more concillatoy approach to Iran and revive the Obama-era  nuclear deal with the regime. 

"Whether Iran is tempted to take revenge or whether it restrains itself, it will make it difficult for Biden to return to the nuclear agreement," Amos Yadlin, the directorate of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, wrote on Twitter. 

Both the White House and Mr Biden’s transition team have so far declined to comment on the assassination.

But Hassan Rouhani, the president of Iran, accused Israel of acting as a “mercenary” for the United States and of trying to sow chaos in the region.

“The nation of Iran is smarter than to fall in the trap of the conspiracy set by the Zionists," Rouhani said, according to Iranian state media.

"They are thinking of creating chaos, but they should know that we have read their hands and they will not succeed,” he added, warning that Iran would retaliate “at the proper time.”

In this satellite image, collected on February 28, 2007, a uranium enrichment plant spreads over the land of Natanz in Iran - Getty Images 
In this satellite image, collected on February 28, 2007, a uranium enrichment plant spreads over the land of Natanz in Iran - Getty Images

Iran analysts said that while Fakhrizadeh was a prominent figure in the regime, his death is unlikely to put a stop to the nuclear programme. Iran has long denied that it is attempting to build nuclear weapons and insists it is building a peaceful nuclear power system.

“Fakhrizadeh was an important strategist, but this isn't a decapitation by any means because there is an institutional knowledge behind the programme,” said Dr Sanam Vakil, an expert on Iranian affairs at Chatham House.

“While he is important, there will be people who will fill his shoes,” she added.

Dr Vakil said it was also likely that Iran would adopt a cautious approach to plotting its revenge over the assassnation, rather than resorting to military action.

“If and when Iran choses to respond I think it will be an in-kind response, where it tries to target individuals or Israeli infrastructure through a cyber-attack,” she said.

It is not the first time that prominent figures in the regime's nuclear programme have been assassinated. At least four scientists were killed between 2010 and 2012, with Israel also suspected of orchestrating the attacks.