Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh is pictured during a meeting with the Iranian supreme leader in Tehran, on January 23, 2019. Photo: AFP

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani Saturday accused arch-foe Israel of trying to create “chaos” by assassinating one of Tehran’s top nuclear scientists, but said his country will not fall into a “trap”.

Scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was “martyred” 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 defence ministry. 

“The nation of Iran is smarter than to fall in the trap of the conspiracy set by the Zionists. They are thinking of creating chaos, but they should know that we have read their hands and they will not succeed,” Rouhani said in televised remarks, after accusing the Jewish state of being behind the assassination.

“Iran’s enemies should know, that the people of Iran and officials are braver than to leave this criminal act unanswered,” he added, talking at Iran’s weekly Covid-19 taskforce meeting.

“In due time, they will answer for this crime.”

“This barbaric assassination shows that our enemies are in stressful weeks, during which they feel… their pressure declining, the global situation changing,” Rouhani added, in an apparent reference to the outgoing administration of US President Donald Trump, which has forged closer than ever ties with Israel.

Trump on Friday retweeted reports on Fakhrizadeh’s assassination, without commenting on it himself.

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Saturday called for the “punishing” of those behind the assassination of a top nuclear scientist, adding that his work must be continued.

He called for “following up on this crime and certainly punishing the perpetrators and those responsible, and … continuing the scientific and technical efforts of this martyr in all of the fields he was working in,” according to a statement on the supreme leader’s official website.

‘Israeli role’

The defence ministry said that Fakhrizadeh, who headed its reasearch and innovation organisation, died after medics failed to revive him.

Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Friday said that there were “serious indications of an Israeli role” in the assassination.

“Terrorists murdered an eminent Iranian scientist today,” he tweeted. “This cowardice – with serious indications of Israeli role – shows desperate warmongering of perpetrators.”

Zarif called on international community to “condemn this act of state terror”.

The New York Times said an American official and two other intelligence officials confirmed Israel was behind the attack, without giving further details.

The assassination of Fakhrizadeh comes less than two months before US President-elect Joe Biden is to take office.

Biden has promised a return to diplomacy with Iran after four hawkish years under Trump, who unilaterally withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and re-imposed crippling sanctions as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran.

Rouhani said that Iran’s foes want to “make the maximum use … of these few weeks” in order to “create an uncertain situation in the region.” 

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 programme.

Iran’s Defence Minister Amir Hatami said Fakhrizadeh had a “significant role in defence innovations” and had been repeatedly “threatened with assassination and (was) followed.”

Speaking on television, Hatami said he “managed nuclear defence and did extensive work”, without elaborating.

He linked Fakhrizadeh’s assassination to the killing of Iran’s top general Qasem Soleimani as “completely related”.

Soleimani, who headed the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, was killed in an American air strike near Baghdad airport in January.

Days later, Iran launched a volley of missiles at Iraqi bases housing US and other coalition troops, but Trump refrained from any further military response.

‘Bitter and heavy blow’

Iran’s armed forces chief of staff Major General Mohammad Bagheri called Fakhrizdeh’s death “a bitter and heavy blow to the country’s defence system” and warned of “severe revenge”.

Hossein Dehghan, military adviser to Iran’s supreme leader and a former senior officer in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, accused Israel of trying to provoke a war through the assassination.

“In the last days of the political life of their gambling ally (Trump), the Zionists are trying to intensify pressure on Iran to create a full-blown war,” he tweeted. “We will strike the killers like lightning.”

Many Iranian newspapers covered Fakhrizadeh’s assassination on the front pages of their Saturday editions.

The conservative Resalat called him the “pride of (Iran’s) nuclear industry” and said his killing showed “the West cannot be trusted”.

Wider conflagration

Former CIA director John Brennan warned 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.

“Iranian leaders would be wise to wait for the return of responsible American leadership on the global stage and to resist the urge to respond against perceived culprits.”

Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that controls Gaza, condemned the assassination. 

“This assassination comes against the background of persistant American and Zionist threats against the Islamic Republic of Iran,” it said.

Ellie Geranmayeh of the European Council on International Relations said on Twitter that the “objective behind the killing wasn’t to hinder (Iran’s) nuclear programme but to undermine diplomacy.”

She noted that recent high-level visits by US officials to Israel and Saudi Arabia “raised flags something being cooked up” to “provoke Iran and complicate Biden’s diplomatic push.”

The killing of Fakhrizadeh is the latest in a series of assassinations of nuclear scientists in Iran in recent years that the Islamic republic has blamed on Israel.

The New York Times reported earlier in November that al-Qaeda’s second-in-command was secretly shot and killed in Tehran by two Israeli operatives on a motorcycle at Washington’s behest.

Iran said the report was based on “made-up information” and reaffirmed its denial of the presence of any of the group’s members in the Islamic republic.

AFP