In 2018, Israel’s prime minster, Benjamin Netanyahu, revealed that his country’s forces had seized Iran’s nuclear archives. In an elaborate presentation, Netanyahu revealed a number of details on the military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program. He spoke of one man in particular: Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.
“Remember this name: Fakhrizadeh,” Netanyahu said.
That name has topped global news today, as Fakhrizadeh was assassinated on the afternoon of November 27 in Absard, a small town in Damavand county in Tehran province, near the capital city Tehran. The small ambient town, which is host to summer homes and compounds for a number of Iranian elites, has now become the center of an international drama.
According to official Iranian social media accounts, which were quick to publish photos and videos of the event, Fakhrizadeh was attacked at about 2:30 pm local time, as a Nissan exploded in Absard’s Persian Gulf Square. Fakhrizadeh’s vehicle then came under attack from a second team. One of his bodyguards was hit by four bullets, and Fakhrizadeh was also hit. He died after being taken by helicopter to the hospital, Iran’s Tasnim News Agency reported.
Iranian authorities loudly mourned the “martyrdom” of Farkhrizadeh, who was the head of the Defense Ministry’s Research and Innovation Organization (RINO.) The intelligence ministry has vowed that its forces “have started to identify the terrorist mercenaries who committed this ghastly crime and will revenge the blood of this dear martyr.”
Who was Fakhrizadeh?
Bibi (Benjamin Netanyahu) wasn’t the first prominent source to reveal Fakhrizadeh’s identity. He has long been regarded as the father of a secret nuclear weapons program that most intelligence sources understood Iran had wrapped up in 2003. In 2013, Foreign Policy magazine included him in its list of 500 most powerful people on the planet. In 2007, the United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions on him. In 2006, when an Iranian opposition group published fresh details on Iran’s nuclear program (probably based on accounts supplied by Western or Israeli intelligence agencies), Fakhrizadeh was named as one of the top 21 nuclear physicists working at Imam Hossein University (IHU) to advance Iran’s nuclear program. Founded in 1986, IHU is under the direct control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the militia founded as a praetorian guard for the Islamic Republic and its leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Fakhrizadeh, a longtime IRGC member who fought in the 1980-1988 war with Iraq, was introduced as the director of the “Center for Preparation of Modern Technologies for Advancing Defense,” one of the many names given to an entity that has changed titles many times. Despite the name changes, the institute’s work has been the same since its foundation in 1989: preparing secret weapons options, including nuclear ones.
In a phone conversation with IranWire earlier today, a deputy minister under former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said he had known Fakhrizadeh since 1994, when they had worked together on “a defense program.”
“This is without a doubt the biggest blow our nuclear project has ever been hit by,” the source told IranWire, who asked to remain anonymous. “None of the previous scientist assassinations have been this bad.”
“The traitors who run the IRGC and the intelligence ministry have to answer for this: How do they steal our nuclear archives in daylight? How do they kill our best scientist like this?,” the former deputy minister said.
A Secret Program
In late 2007, the US intelligence community shocked the world when it released a National Intelligence Estimate that began with a stark statement: “We judge with high confidence that in the fall of 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.”
As Wall Street Journal writer Jay Solomon later revealed in his 2016 book The Iran Wars, the US had been able to reach this conclusion by intercepting the emails and phone calls of Fakhrizadeh, “the suspected head of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.” Apparently, he had been complaining about his funding being cut.
In 2008, the New York Times revealed how Fakhrizadeh was a central focus for President George W. Bush’s administration. According to its reports, Bush had long had two goals in relation to Iran’s program: sabotaging the uranium enrichment plant in Natanz, located in central Iran and “[keeping] the pressure on a little-known Iranian professor named Mohsen Fakrizadeh [sic], a scientist described in classified portions of American intelligence reports as deeply involved in an effort to design a nuclear warhead for Iran.”
Ever since 1989, shortly after the death of the Islamic Republic’s founder Ayatollah Khomeini, and his replacement by the new Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a “Physics Research Center” (PRC) had been set up in northern Tehran. Independent from Iran’s official atomic agency, which had regular ties with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the PRC worked on what Khamenei and his then close ally, President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, believed might be necessary for Iran’s future: a nuclear weapons program.
Through acquiring materials from the United Kingdom, France and Germany; training scientists at IHU and contacting the yet-undetected underground network of the Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadir Khan and ex-Soviet nuclear researchers who were at the time freelancing, Iran took decisive steps in building its nuclear infrastructure in the 1990s. It was something that would become the subject of an ongoing international crisis when it was exposed to the world in 2002.
Fakhrizadeh had been the leading man in all these efforts since the early 1990s, the former deputy minister told IranWire, confirming what has been asserted in numerous media reports, which have long compared the man to Pakistan’s AQ Khan or the US’s own Robert Oppenheimer.
“He was a true genius,” the source remembers. “He had a true passion for science and had a level of thinking that you basically didn’t have with anyone else in Iran. It’s a huge blow for the country.”
Fakhrizadeh is also known to have been close to Ali Akbar Salehi, a soft-spoken physicist who got his PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1977 before the Iranian revolution and was later head of Iran’s atomic energy agency and its foreign minister from 2010 to 2013. Salehi played a key role in the negotiations that led to the Iran Deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action of 2015. He was unique in having knowledge of the secret weapons program of the 1990s, a topic persistently raised during the talks.
Is the Military Program Back in Operation?
Even if Iran did halt its military program entirely in 2003, does it have plans to revive it?
This is one of the questions that has been raised following Fakhrizadeh’s assassination.
Fakhrizadeh had not given up. According to the Jerusalem Post, in 2013 Western intelligence reports that he attended a North Korean nuclear weapons test. North Korea has been one of Iran’s primary intelligence and military allies since the 1979 revolution. It is also one of the only nine countries in the world that has acquired nuclear weapons (the other eight are the five permanent members of the UN security council plus India, Pakistan and Israel.) Shortly after the Iran Deal was reached in 2015, the head of the IAEA, Yukio Amano, visited Iran to start the job of verification. One of the first hurdles he had was that his request to interview one man was persistently rejected — and that man was Fakhrizadeh.
Since the US’s withdrawal from the Iran Deal in 2018, Iran has expanded its nuclear activities, enriching much more uranium than what the deal allowed. Could it have also brought back the military dimensions of the program?
One country is certainly not taking its chances. It is the only country regularly threatened with total destruction by Iran and the only country with the history and capability of committing such acts: Israel.
Many Iranian officials, including foreign minister Javad Zarif, have already accused Israel of carrying out the assassination. The New York Times has also cited three security sources who say it was Israel who killed Fakhrizadeh. The office of Israel’s prime minister has refused to comment.
In his 2018 account of Israel’s targeted assassinations, Israeli journalist Ronen Bergaman named Fakhrizadeh as the head of the weapons program who was being especially guarded by the Iranians.
Israel has always made it clear that it would do everything it can to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Just a few months ago, in June, the country’s armed forces, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), created a new position on its general staff: The Strategy and Third-Circle Directorate is squarely focused on the fight against Iran. In its opening ceremony, IDF’s chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi, called Iran “the most dangerous country in the Middle East” and said that it had “made significant progress with its nuclear program.” Around the same time, the site in Natanz sufferd major damage in a sabotage attack.
Israel has also attacked Iran’s forces in Syria recently. Only yesterday, Thursday, November 25, airstrikes, widely assumed to have been carried out by the Israelis, killed 19 Pakistani forces in Zeinabiyon Brigade, a group organized by Iran and mostly consisting of the Shia minority in Pakistan. The attacks, which were one of at least three on Iranian targets in Syria in the last week alone, were reported by the opposition-aligned Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
With two months left of Donald Trump’s presidency, tensions couldn’t be higher in the region. Whether the assassination can embroil Iran in a war with Israel, the United States and their regional Arab allies is a worry troubling many minds.