By Kareem Fahim and Miriam Berger,
ISTANBUL — Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Saturday that Israel was behind the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a prominent Iranian nuclear scientist, adding that Tehran would respond to the killing at the “right time.”
Fakhrizadeh was fatally wounded in a daytime ambush east of Tehran Friday, Iranian authorities said. He had been a driving force behind Iran’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.
In a statement Saturday, Rouhani, referring to Israel, blamed the “usurper Zionist regime” for the killing and said Fakhrizadeh’s death would not impede Iran’s scientific “achievements.” In a separate speech, Rouhani tied the killing to President Trump’s coming departure from office.
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. President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to work more closely with allies on Iran policies and work to rejoin the nuclear agreement.
“This brutal assassination shows that our enemies are passing through anxious weeks, weeks that they feel their pressure era is coming to an end and the global conditions are changing,” Rouhani said. “These weeks are crucial for them to make the best out of the time.”
Officials in Israel have not commented.
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.”
In a message on Twitter Friday, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), wrote: “If the primary purpose of the killing of Mr. Fakhrizadeh was to make it harder to restart the Iran nuclear agreement, then this assassination does not make America, Israel or the world safer.”
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.
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.
Iran has recently increased its stockpile of enriched uranium since the Trump administration pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal. Tehran has insisted that the enriched uranium is intended only to power its nuclear energy plants and a research reactor, while its foes counter that it puts the nation closer to producing warhead-grade material.
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.
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.
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.