A top scientist seen as the father of Iran's nuclear program has been assassinated, Iranian media reports

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Ryan Pickrell,John Haltiwanger
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An Iranian security guard standing in front of the Bushehr nuclear power plant on August 20, 2010 in southern Iran
An Iranian security guard stands in front of the Bushehr nuclear power plant in southern Iran in August 2010. XINHUA/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
  • The Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh has been assassinated, Iranian media reported on Friday.

  • Fakhrizadeh, a former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officer and physics professor who was seen as a prominent player in Iran's modern nuclear program, was attacked outside Tehran, per the reports.

  • He reportedly died in the hospital after a medical team was unable to save him.

  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

A top Iranian nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was assassinated Friday, Iranian media reported.

Fakhrizadeh, a former officer in Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and a physics professor, was a senior scientist widely regarded as the father of Iran's modern nuclear program and suspected of overseeing aspects of the country's nuclear-weapons research.

Unidentified assailants reportedly targeted Fakhrizadeh while he was traveling on a road in Absard, about 50 miles outside the Iranian capital of Tehran.

Iranian state media initially reported that "news sources say a scientist has been the victim of an assassination attempt in an armed attack by unknown people on his team of bodyguards." It was later reported that the attack was fatal.

Iran's defense ministry said in a statement Friday that "armed terrorists targeted a vehicle carrying Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, head of the ministry's research and innovation organisation," adding that Fakhrizadeh "was severely injured and rushed to hospital."

The ministry said that efforts by a medical team to save him were unsuccessful, the BBC reported.

Following the news of Fakhrizadeh's death, Iran's foreign minister, Javad Zarif, pointed the finger at Israel. "Terrorists murdered an eminent Iranian scientist today," he tweeted. "This cowardice-with serious indications of Israeli role-shows desperate warmongering of perpetrators."

Hossein Salami, a Revolutionary Guard commander, tweeted that "assassinating nuclear scientists is the most violent confrontation to prevent us from reaching modern science."

American and Israeli intelligence reportedly suggests Fakhrizadeh was behind Iran's secret efforts to develop a nuclear weapon. The New York Times reported that there was suspicion that his work might have continued even after a program he oversaw was disbanded in the early 2000s.

A 2012 Wall Street Journal article, citing Western officials, said Fakhrizadeh had been widely compared to Robert Oppenheimer, the American physicist behind the US's push to develop atomic weaponry. The Times made the same comparison to Oppenheimer in 2014.

The Journal article said that the Iranian scientist "helped push Iran into its nuclear age over the past two decades" and that as a Revolutionary Guard officer he was heavily involved in Iran's nuclear-weapons research.

A Western diplomat critical of Iran's nuclear endeavors told Reuters six years ago that "if Iran ever chose to weaponize [enrichment], Fakhrizadeh would be known as the father of the Iranian bomb."

And in a 2018 presentation on Iran's nuclear ambitions, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu identified the scientist as a major player in Iran's nuclear activities, saying, "Remember that name, Fakhrizadeh."

Earlier this month, the UN's nuclear watchdog reported that Iran's stockpile of low-enriched uranium was more than 12 times the limit under the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran's stockpile was up to 2,443 kilograms, while under the nuclear deal it was limited to 203 kilograms. Iran's uranium was enriched up to 4.5%, the agency said - far below weapons-grade levels of roughly 90% but above the 3.67% limit under the 2015 deal.

Days after the IAEA's report was made public, The Times reported that President Donald Trump had asked top advisors about the possibility of striking Iran's main nuclear facility.

Senior advisors ultimately discouraged Trump from pursuing the strike, warning that it could provoke a full-blown conflict during the final months of his tenure. Axios reported this week that the Israel Defense Forces were instructed to prepare for the possibility of a US military strike against Iran.

Trump, who controversially withdrew the US from the nuclear deal in May 2018, lost the 2020 election to Joe Biden.

Biden has expressed a desire to return the US to the deal. But top experts have cautioned that restoring the Obama-era pact could be among the president-elect's biggest foreign-policy challenges once he's in office.

Mark Fitzpatrick, an associate fellow with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told Insider that there "are ample reasons to suspect US involvement" in the reported assassination of Fakhrizadeh, including "Trump's desire to strike Iran and his request for options" and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's "meetings in Israel."

Fitzpatrick added that "the assassination is consistent with Trump's efforts to prevent his successor from restoring the JCPOA."

"As important as Fakhrizadeh was to Iran's clandestine nuclear-weapons development program, killing him will not significantly impede Iran's potential to produce nuclear weapons, given how much work they have done to date," Fitzpatrick said. "The reason for assassinating him at this time was less about impeding Iran's war potential and more about impeding diplomacy. It was a provocation."

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Insider.

Iran has repeatedly denied that it has ever had ambitions of producing a nuclear weapon. Fakhrizadeh is said to have spearheaded Iran's so-called Amad, or "Hope," program, described as a military operation that examined the possibility of building a nuclear weapon. According to the IAEA, the program ended in 2003.

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