The president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, has accused Israel of killing top scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh and promised the assassination would not halt the country’s nuclear progress, state TV reported.
“Once again, the evil hands of global arrogance were stained with the blood of the mercenary usurper Zionist regime,” Rouhani said in a statement on Saturday. “The assassination of martyr Fakhrizadeh shows our enemies’ despair and the depth of their hatred … His martyrdom will not slow down our achievements.”
Fakhrizadeh, the architect of Tehran’s nuclear programme, was assassinated on Friday on a highway near the capital, in a major escalation of tensions in the Middle East.
Iran later told the UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres, and the UN security council in a letter there were “serious indications of Israeli responsibility” and that it reserved the right to defend itself.
Iran’s UN envoy, Majid Takht Ravanchi, said in the letter, seen by Reuters: “Warning against any adventuristic measures by the United States and Israel against my country, particularly during the remaining period of the current administration of the United States in office, the Islamic Republic of Iran reserves its rights to take all necessary measures to defend its people and secure its interests.”
Israel will face accusations it is using the final weeks of the Trump administration to try to provoke Iran in the hope of closing off any chance of reconciliation between Tehran and the incoming US administration led by Joe Biden. Donald Trump has so far only retweeted on Friday a series of stories in Hebrew and English about the killing.
Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli Defence Force intelligence, said: “With the window of time left for Trump, such a move could lead Iran to a violent response, which would provide a pretext for a US-led attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.”
John Brennan, a former head of the CIA, called the assassination “a criminal act & highly reckless”, and one that could spark retaliation, though he did not speculate about who might be behind it. “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,” he tweeted.
Fakhrizadeh was ambushed with explosives and machine gun fire in the town of Absard, 70km (44 miles) east of Tehran. Efforts to resuscitate him in hospital failed. His bodyguard and family members were also wounded.
Rouhani’s statement follows comments by the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who said Israel was probably to blame, and an adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who vowed retaliation. “We will strike as thunder at the killers of this oppressed martyr and will make them regret their action,” tweeted Hossein Dehghan.
Zarif immediately called on European leaders to distance themselves from what he saw as Israel’s actions. “Terrorists murdered an eminent Iranian scientist today,” he tweeted. “This cowardice – with serious indications of Israeli role – shows desperate warmongering of perpetrators. Iran calls on international community – and especially EU – to end their shameful double standards & condemn this act of state terror.”
Fakhrizadeh had been described by western and Israeli intelligence services for years as the leader of a covert atomic bomb programme halted in 2003. He was a central figure in a presentation by the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in 2018 accusing Iran of continuing to seek nuclear weapons. “Remember that name, Fakhrizadeh,” Netanyahu said during the presentation.
He accused Iran at the time of hiding and expanding its nuclear weapons knowhow, saying that Israeli intelligence had obtained a half-tonne cache of nuclear archive materials from the country. Iran has always denied it has any interest in developing nuclear weapons, saying its research was for peaceful purposes.
During the final months of Trump’s presidency, Israel has been making peace with Gulf Arab states that share its hostility towards Iran. Earlier this week, Netanyahu travelled to Saudi Arabia and met its crown prince, in the first publicly confirmed visit by an Israeli leader. Israeli media said they were joined by the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.
Biden has said he is willing to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal abandoned by Trump and lift some economic sanctions if Iran comes back into compliance with the agreement, especially over its excess stocks of enriched uranium. Israel and Saudi Arabia want the US to remain outside the deal and continue with Trump’s policy of maximum economic sanctions.