The Iranian scientist who was assassinated on Friday was a mysterious figure, unknown to most people outside of Iran, shrouded in secrecy and kept hidden by the Iranian government in recent years.
Only two known photos have ever surfaced of him in the press — one of which appears to be several years, if not decades, old. Few people outside Iran are believed to ever have seen him or to even know what he looks like.
That makes this hit — widely believed to be carried out by Mossad agents — all the more impressive. And it raises questions as to just why a scientist would be the target of an assassin’s bullets.
Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed in a roadside ambush on Friday afternoon about 40 miles outside Tehran. He was traveling with bodyguards when an explosion took place followed by a shootout. Some reports coming out of Iran said that up to six gunmen took aim at the S.U.V. in which Fakhrizadeh was traveling while others claimed that the operation was carried out by a drone.
But who was this secretive scientist and why was he targeted? Was he simply a scientist, professor and military figure, as Iran portrayed him?
Iran identified the 59 year old as the head of the Defense Ministry’s Research and Innovation Organization, an officer in the elite Revolutionary Guard, and sometimes just a professor.
He was born in 1958 in Qom. In 1979, after the overthrow of the shah, he joined the Revolutionary Guards and retained the rank of brigadier general even as a scientist.
Fakhrizadeh was believed to be the leader of Amad, Iran’s nuclear program, which “carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device,” according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. The program — but not bomb development, Israel and the West allege — was ended in 2003.
Western intelligence officials consider Fakhrizadeh the mastermind behind Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons. The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies said that Fakhrizadeh was “covertly” present at the first nuclear test under Kim Jong-un in North Korea in 2013 with “a delegation of Iranian nuclear experts.”
Fakhrizadeh has been called the J. Robert Oppenheimer of Iran after the American physicist who oversaw the creation of the atomic bomb.
He was widely regarded as “the father of Iran’s weapons program” and the one who “likely knew more about Iran’s nuclear program than any living human. Losing his leadership, knowledge and institutional memory is undoubtedly a blow to the Islamic Republic,” according to Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The significance of his death has been compared to that of the more well-known Qasem Soleimani, assassinated in an American drone attack in January. According to Simon Henderson, an expert on the Middle East at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Fakhrizadeh and Soleimani “were parallel in terms of seniority and prestige within Iran.”
Iran made sure Fakhrizadeh was never interviewed by the International Atomic Energy Agency despite repeated requests. Possibly the assassinations between 2010 and 2012 of four other Iranian scientists believed to be associated with the nuclear program, prompted Iran to keep Fakhrizadeh underground.
His importance to Iran’s weapons program became more apparent when Israel revealed thousands of documents its operatives claimed to have smuggled out of Iran in 2018. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a point of naming Fakhrizadeh and showing what appears now to be a dated photo of the scientist during a widely aired news conference.
“Remember that name, Fakhrizadeh,” Netanyahu said.
Though Fakhrizadeh was not a household name around the globe, the Israelis have had their sights on him for awhile.
Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hinted in an interview in 2018 that Fakhrizadeh could be a target.
“I know Fakhrizadeh well,” he told the Kan Israeli channel. “He doesn’t know how well I know him. If I met him in the streets most likely I would recognize him. He does not have immunity, he did not have immunity, and I don’t think he will have immunity.”
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former Iranian-targets officer in the Central Intelligence Agency, gave credit to Israel for the assassination.
“Any American intelligence operative who’s worked on Iran has to tip his hat to Israel’s Mossad,” he wrote.
He said that combined — the assassination, the “warehouse heist” of Iran’s nuclear archive in 2018 and several mysterious explosions at the Natanz uranium enrichment site and other sites in Iran — are unparalleled.
The hit was also a “signal” from Israel and the current administration to Joe Biden who has said he would re-enter the nuclear deal with Iran that President Donald Trump withdrew from in 2018.
The killing risks raising tensions in the region. Israel has increased security levels at home and at installations abroad. Many governments have condemned the attack, including the European Union which called it a “criminal act.”