On Friday, November 27 the highest-ranking scientist behind Iran’s nuclear programs Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was mysteriously ambushed and killed in a small city in northern Iran. For decades, the United States and Israel have regarded him as the key figure secretly spearheading Tehran’s country’s efforts to develop an atomic warhead.

Who Was Behind the Fakhrizadeh Assassination?

A number of American officials — including sources from the US secret services — have said that Israel was behind the assassination of Iran’s leading nuclear scientist, as he had long been on the Mossad’s list of top targets. The ambuscade, which consisted of reportedly five or six men, was set up in Absard, a small city in Iran’s northern Damavand region, where Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was travelling in his car. According to Iranian reports, an explosion preceded gunfire.

“Terrorists murdered an eminent Iranian scientist today,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif reacted on Twitter. “This cowardice — with serious indications of Israeli role — shows desperate warmongering of perpetrators.” 

Iran soon vowed to take retaliatory action. The country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that Iran will pursue those behind the assassination and punish both “its perpetrators and those who commanded it.” Echoing him, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the Iranian people “are braver than to leave this criminal act unanswered” and promised a response “in due time” as he blamed Israel.

Project 110 and Fakhrizadeh’s True Identity

Iran had long depicted Mohsen Fakhrizadeh as a mere academic who taught at the Imam Hossein University, a public university in Tehran which is under the authority of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

But as early as the 2000s, at least, intelligence reports in the United States focused on the mysterious figure and disclosed key information about him. In 2007, a CIA assessment made for the Bush Administration revealed that Fakhrizadeh’s academic profession was a cover story.

In fact, Fakhrizadeh had been running what Iran labelled “Project 110” and “Project 111” — a complex endeavor aimed to create a nuclear warhead that is small enough to fit into a missile but which holds out against the pressure of re-entering into the atmosphere.

“He was their senior-most nuclear scientist and was believed to be responsible for Iran’s covert nuclear program,” a former Pentagon Middle East policy top official told the New York Times. “He was also a senior officer in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and that will magnify Iran’s desire to respond by force.”

2018: Israel Names Fakhrizadeh Enemy Number One

In 2018, Israel’s Mossad stole documents from an Iranian warehouse that held documentations of a program named the “Amad Project”. Relying on those documents in a televised presentation, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also revealed Fakhrizadeh’s role to be of extreme significance and named him Israel’s public enemy number one.

Netanyahu said that even after the Amad Project was abandoned Fakhrizadeh had kept it secretly alive. He added that the project was now run by an organization within Iran’s defense ministry known as the Organization of of Defensive Innovation and Research (Sazman-e Pazhouheshhaye Novin-e Defa’i or SPND) which was also led by Fakhrizadeh.

Why Was Fakhrizadeh Killed Now?

On November 12, President Donald Trump told senior advisers in the Oval Office that he wanted to strike Iran’s nuclear site in Natanz, but his advisers soon dissuaded him, fearing the beginning of an unprecedented armed conflict. The day before, Trump had dismissed his then Pentagon chief Mark Esper.

As he is expected to concede the American election in January, Trump is now focused on sabotaging any possible diplomacy between the United States and Iran under President-elect Joe Biden and a prospective return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the 2015 nuclear deal from which Trump withdrew in 2018).

Had it taken place earlier this month, the strike would have wrecked that possibility beyond repair. But the killing of Fakhrizadeh — which occurred shortly after Netanyahu met Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman for the first time — certainly sought to reach the same end goal. 

By baiting Iran into retaliation, Israel — along with its regional allies — is trying to escalate already fuming tensions i the region and impede any negotiation with Iran in the future. Still, the targeting and killing of Iranian nuclear scientists — and others — in Iran is nothing new.

While many Iranians mourned the death of Fakhrizadeh and took to the streets to demand severe retaliation, some blamed the killing on repeated breache in Iran’s national security. Indeed, on August 7, al-Qaeda’s second-highest leader, Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah (who went by the nom de guerre Abu Muhammad al-Masri), was gunned down in broad daylight in the streets of Tehran by Israeli agents on a motorcycle.

A History of Israeli Breaches of Iranian Security

“Over the current decade, several top Iranian scientists have been targeted and assassinated in terrorist attacks and our firm evidence clearly indicates that certain foreign quarters have been behind such assassinations,” Majid Takht-Ravanchi, the Ambassador of Iran to United Nations, wrote in a letter addressed to UN leader Antonio Gueterres and the UN Security Council following the death of Fakhrizadeh.

Almost precisely 10 years ago, on November 29, 2010, two Iranian nuclear scientists were targeted in coordinated bomb attacks, when attackers rode motorcycles and stuck bombs on their cars. However, only one of them, Majid Shahriar, was killed in that specific attack. 

A number of other targeted killings happened later, while Stuxnet — a computer virus believed to be an Israeli and American creation — destroyed Iranian nuclear centrifuges, including in Natanz.

In July of this year, an mysterious explosion took place at a nuclear research and development center at Natanz. Israel, which vowed to destroy Iran’s hopes to develop nuclear weapons at all costs, also has a history of bombing plants in Syria and Iraq.

Will Iran Strike Back?

Germany, which is a key US ally in Europe, urged the two sides not to allow the last weeks of the Trump administration to obliterate hopes for new negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.

“A few weeks before the new US administration takes office, it is important to preserve the scope for talks with Iran so that the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program can be resolved through negotiations,” the German foreign ministry said in a statement. “We therefore urge all parties to refrain from any steps that could lead to a further escalation of the situation.”

But Iran, which has suffered two major killings this year — the first being the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, then the highest-ranking individual in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — seems to be more intent on revenge than ever before.

“We assure you that we will not rest until we track down and take revenge on those responsible for the assassination of martyr Fakhrizadeh,” Mohammad Bagheri, chief of staff for the Iranian armed forces, said in a statement responding to the assassination.

Meanwhile Israeli and American missions in neighboring countries have been put on high alert since the killing.