Iranian media reported details of the assassination of top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on Friday, describing a truck bomb and a fierce firefight outside Tehran.
Israeli and Western intelligence officials have identified Fakhrizadeh as the leading figure in Iran’s rogue nuclear weapons program. Iranian officials accused Israel of being behind the attack and vowed revenge.
The ambush took place in the town of Absard, a retreat for the Iranian elite with views of surrounding mountains located 40 miles east of Tehran.
Absard residents told state media they heard an explosion in the area of the attack, followed by a barrage of automatic gunfire.
Iranian state television said a parked Nissan truck with explosives hidden under a load of wood blew up as Fakhrizadeh approached in a vehicle.
As Fakhrizadeh’s sedan stopped on the wide, tree-lined avenue, five or six gunmen emerged from a nearby vehicle and opened fire on his car, the semi-official Tasnim news agency said.
A firefight erupted between the assassins and Fakhrizadeh’s bodyguards. The attackers wounded Fakhrizadeh and killed at least three of the guards before escaping.
Fakhrizadeh was evacuated by helicopter and died at a hospital after doctors and paramedics couldn’t revive him. Others wounded, including Fakhrizadeh’s bodyguards, also were taken to a local hospital, Iranian media said.
The powerful truck bomb sent debris flying at least 300 meters (yards) and damaged nearby electricity poles and transmitters, The New York Times reported.
Tasnim said the attack took place at 2:30 p.m., local time, and that Fakhrizadeh’s relatives were with him at the time of the attack, but it wasn’t clear if his family members were in the same vehicle. The agency said the total number of people killed in the incident was still unknown.
Roads on Friday, part of the Iranian weekend, were emptier than normal due to a lockdown over the coronavirus pandemic, offering the attackers a chance to strike with fewer people around.
Photos and video shared online showed a Nissan sedan with bullet holes in the windshield, blood pooled on the asphalt and debris scattered along a stretch of the road.
Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency claimed “three to four individuals, most likely all terrorists” were killed, citing eyewitnesses. All other reports said the attackers escaped from the scene.
Following the attack, Iranian security forces fanned out in Tehran, apparently looking for the assassins, Reuters said.
The shadowy scientist was alleged to be the mastermind of Iran’s rogue nuclear weapons program.
Several top Iranian officials indicated they believed Israel was behind the killing in the hours after the attack, with one adviser to the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader vowing revenge.
The New York Times said Israel was behind the attack, citing an American official and two intelligence sources. Fakhrizadeh was a longtime target of the Mossad spy agency, the Times said.
The killing risks further stoking tensions across the Mideast, nearly a year after Iran and the US stood on the brink of war after an American drone strike killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad.
It comes just as US President-elect Joe Biden stands poised to be inaugurated in January, and will likely complicate his efforts to return America to a pact aimed at ensuring Iran does not have enough highly enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon.
Biden has promised a return to diplomacy with Iran after four hawkish years under incumbent US President Donald Trump, who withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and began reimposing crippling sanctions on Tehran.
Israel has long been suspected of carrying out a series of targeted killings of Iranian nuclear scientists nearly a decade ago, in a bid to curtail Iran’s nuclear program. Israeli TV coverage noted that Friday’s attack was far more complex than any of those previous incidents. Israel has never acknowledged assassinating people involved in the Iranian nuclear program.
Israel, the US and other world leaders have not commented publicly on Fakhrizadeh’s killing. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday night announced new sanctions against Russian and Chinese entities for supporting Iran’s missile program, but did not mention the assassination.
The UN called for “restraint and the need to avoid any actions that could lead to an escalation of tensions in the region.”