The killing of Fakhrizadeh — on a road in Damavand east of Tehran — was the third high-profile attack to shake Tehran’s government in less than a year.
In January, a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad killed Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military commander and leader of its special-operations forces abroad. And in August, Israeli agents acting on behalf of American officials assassinated a senior al-Qaeda official in Tehran, according to a U.S. official.
Fakhrizadeh was once at the pinnacle of Iran’s nuclear program, including efforts to develop nuclear arms that Tehran claims was scrapped in 2003. But his current role is less directly involved in Iran’s nuclear sites, which include an energy-producing reactor and extensive centrifuge labs to enrich uranium.
While Fakhrizadeh had been a key figure in Iran’s bomb program, “that work is all in the past, and there is no reason to expect that if Fakhrizadeh is gone it would have any effect on Iran’s current nuclear program,” said Paul Pillar, a 28-year veteran of the CIA and a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies.”
Still, the attack showed apparent holes in Iran’s security and intelligence networks — nearly a decade after a spate of targeted bombings and gun ambushes killed at least four people with links to Iran’s nuclear program.
Iran also has recently increased its stockpile of enriched uranium since the Trump administration pulled out of a nuclear deal aimed at limiting Tehran’s nuclear capacity. Iran has insisted the enriched uranium is only for its reactors, but Iran’s foes note that it puts the nation closer to producing warhead-grade material.
Fakhrizadeah was gravely wounded during a “clash” between his security detail and unidentified “armed terrorists,: the semiofficial ISNA news agency said. Fakhrizadeh later died at the hospital, the agency said.
“Terrorists murdered an eminent Iranian scientist today,” Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, wrote on Twitter.
There was no claim of responsibility for the apparent targeted killing, but Iran has accused Israel and the United States of carrying out similar deadly attacks on nuclear experts in the past.
“This cowardice — with serious indications of Israeli role — shows desperate warmongering of perpetrators,” Zarif tweeted about the death of Fakhrizadeh. “Iran calls on int’l community — and especially E.U. — to end their shameful double standards & condemn this act of state terror.”
A spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the office would not comment on reports of Fakhrizadeh’s death.
Fahkrizadeh “was one of the key individuals behind Iran’s nuclear program in the post-revolution era,” and deeply involved in shaping “the weapons phase of the program,” said Ariane Tabatabai, a Middle East fellow at the German Marshall Fund.
“This is very significant politically and symbolically. It again exposes the deep flaws in Iran’s internal security. This is one of many incidents involving Iran’s nuclear program this year and one of several targeted killings on Iranian soil or affecting high level Iranians,” she said.
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 63-year-old physics professor 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.
His importance to Iran’s weapons program is underscored in thousands of Iranian documents that were stolen by Israeli operatives and smuggled out of the country in 2018. The trove of nuclear records include reports and handwritten notes signed by Fakhrizadeh, directing his subordinates on carrying out a series of experiments aimed at mastering key technical challenges in the construction of a nuclear device.
The documents and other records portray Fakhrizdeh as leader of the project since 1998. After the weapons program was halted in 2003, he continued to supervise successor organizations that continued to employ many, if not most, of the Amad project’s scientists in conducting nuclear-related research, U.S. and Israeli analysts believe.
The current program is “now more focused on maintaining and developing nuclear weaponization capabilities rather than building the weapons themselves, said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington nonprofit that tracks nuclear-weapons proliferation.
He called the attack on Fakhrizadeh a “shocking and disturbing development.”
Several analysts said that the timing of the attack appears to be linked to the impending change of U.S. administrations.
Fakhrizadeh, became a Revolutionary Guard Corps member after the overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979. He was a former leader of the Physics Research Center, which U.N. officials say was heavily involved in drawing up plans and acquiring parts for Iran’s first uranium enrichment plant. He was among eight Iranians placed under international travel and financial restrictions under the terms of a U.N. resolution adopted in 2007 because of his alleged ties to “nuclear or ballistic missile” research, U.N. records show.
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 the Supreme Leader. Albright said the increased visibility “may have made him more vulnerable, making his movements easier to track”
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 covert war. U.S. officials have denied any role, and Israel has not commented.
In 2011, Darioush Rezaeinejad, an electrical engineer doctorate student whose work involved nuclear applications, was gunned down outside his Tehran apartment. In November 2010, a bombing in Tehran killed Majid Shahriari, was a member of the nuclear engineering faculty at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran and a member of Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. Another blast that month injured a nuclear scientist, Fereidoun Abbasi, who was later appointed head of Iran’s atomic agency.
In 2012, motorcycle riders attached a magnetic bomb that tore apart a car carrying Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, a nuclear scientist working at Iran’s main uranium-enrichment facility in Natanz. Roshan, 32, had planned to attend a memorial for another nuclear researcher, Tehran University professor Masoud Ali Mohammadi, who was killed in a similar pinpoint blast in 2010.
An Iranian man convicted in the Mohammadi attack, whom Iran claimed was trained by Israel’s Mossad spy agency, was hanged in 2012.
Berger reported from Beirut and Warrick from Washington.