Khamenei vows retaliation • Ex-CIA chief slams ‘criminal’ assassination

A handout photo made available on Friday shows the damaged car of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh after it was attacked near Tehran. — AFP

TEHRAN: Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani yesterday accused arch-foe Israel of acting as a “mercenary” for the United States and seeking to create chaos, vowing Tehran would avenge the assassination of a top Iranian nuclear scientist. Islamic Republic’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called for the perpetrators to be punished for Friday’s killing, while Rouhani stressed the country would seek its revenge in “due time” and not be rushed into a “trap”.

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was dubbed by Israel the “father of Iran’s nuclear program”, died after being seriously wounded when assailants targeted his car and engaged in a gunfight with his bodyguards outside the capital Tehran on Friday, according to Iran’s defense ministry. The assassination comes less than two months before US President-elect Joe Biden is due to take office, after a tumultuous four years of hawkish US foreign policy in the Middle East under President Donald Trump.

“They are thinking of creating chaos, but they should know that we have read their hands and they will not succeed,” Iran’s president said in televised remarks. He pinned the blame for the killing on “the wicked hands of the global arrogance, with the usurper Zionist regime as the mercenary”. Iran generally uses the term “global arrogance” to refer to the United States.

Trump unilaterally withdrew in 2018 from a multilateral nuclear deal with the Islamic republic, which sought to contain its atomic ambitions, and has re-imposed crippling sanctions. But Biden has signaled his administration may be prepared to rejoin the accord. “This barbaric assassination shows that our enemies are in stressful weeks, during which they feel… their pressure declining, the global situation changing,” the Iranian president added. “The nation of Iran is smarter than to fall in the trap of the conspiracy set by the Zionists,” Rouhani said in televised remarks.

The United States slapped sanctions on Fakhrizadeh in 2008 for “activities and transactions that contributed to the development of Iran’s nuclear program”, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once described him as the father of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Iran has repeatedly denied seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

The New York Times said an American official and two other intelligence officials confirmed Israel was behind the attack, without giving further details. “Iran’s enemies should know, that the people of Iran and officials are braver than to leave this criminal act unanswered,” Rouhani added, talking at  Iran’s weekly COVID-19 taskforce meeting. “In due time, they will answer for this crime.”

Former CIA director John Brennan warned on Friday that the assassination risked sparking a wider conflagration in the Middle East. “This was a criminal act and highly reckless. It risks lethal retaliation and a new round of regional conflict,” Brennan tweeted. “I do not know whether a foreign government authorized or carried out the murder of Fakhrizadeh,” he said. “Such an act of state-sponsored terrorism would be a flagrant violation of international law & encourage more governments to carry out lethal attacks against foreign officials.”

Brennan noted that Fakhrizadeh was not a designated terrorist nor a member of Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State group, designated terror groups which would be legal targets. A strong critic of President Donald Trump, Brennan urged Tehran to “resist the urge” to retaliate and “wait for the return of responsible American leadership on the global stage”, a reference to Nov 3 election winner Joe Biden, who will replace Trump on Jan 20.

Brennan was director of the CIA from 2013 to 2017, under the administration of president Barack Obama and then-vice president Biden. Brennan did not take part in Biden’s election campaign and has not appeared to be involved in his preparations for taking office on Jan 20. But early this week Biden named Brennan’s former deputy director at the CIA, Avril Haines, as his director of national intelligence.

Khamenei called for “punishing the perpetrators and those responsible,” in a short statement on his official website, urging that Fakhrizadeh’s “scientific and technical efforts … in all of the fields he was working in” should be continued. Fakhrizadeh, who headed the defense ministry’s research and innovation organization, died after medics failed to revive him following the attack near Absard city in Tehran province’s eastern Damavand county.

Israel has refused to comment on the assassination, but Israeli Channel 12 television reported yesterday that the level of alert had been raised in its embassies worldwide. A spokeswoman for the Israeli foreign ministry in Jerusalem refused to confirm the report. Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia early yesterday “strongly” condemned the “terrorist operation that led to the martyrdom” of Fakhrizadeh.

The killing of Fakhrizadeh is the latest in a series of killings of nuclear scientists in Iran in recent years that the Islamic republic has blamed on Israel. Iranian media have given little information regarding his work, but the head of Iran’s atomic organization Ali Akbar Salehi said yesterday they had “good cooperation especially in the field of nuclear defense”.

He told state TV that Fakhrizadeh had a PhD in “nuclear physics and engineering” and worked on his thesis with Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, the former head of the atomic organization and himself a survivor of an assassination attempt in 2011. US media reports described Fakhrizadeh as the “No. 1 target of the Mossad”, Israel’s spy agency, and the “brains behind Iran’s nuclear program”.

The scientist’s death dominated Iranian newspapers yesterday. The ultraconservative Kayhan daily wrote: “Eye for an eye: Zionists be ready” and said “the Zionists have time and again proven that they understand no language but that of force.”  The reformist Arman-e Melli mirrored Rouhani’s speech, saying Iran “must act even more vigilantly than before … so that we would not walk into the trap of high-tension actions”. – Agencies