Politics

Top Iranian nuclear scientist assassinated

Key Points
  • Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, dubbed the "father of the Iranian bomb," died from injuries after armed assassins fired upon his car, according to reports by Iranian media.
  • Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif condemned the killing and alleged "serious indications" of Israeli involvement.
  • The Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment.
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Iran's top nuclear scientist allegedly assassinated

WASHINGTON — A top Iranian nuclear scientist has been assassinated near Tehran, Iran's government confirmed Friday and alleged Israel was behind the killing, though nobody has claimed responsibility so far.

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, dubbed the "father of the Iranian bomb," died from injuries after armed assassins fired upon his car, according to reports by Iranian media that have not been independently confirmed by NBC News.

State media shared photographs of a black Nissan sedan with multiple bullet holes through the windshield and blood on the road next to the car door.

A view shows the scene of the attack that killed Prominent Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, outside Tehran, Iran, November 27, 2020.
WANA via Reuters

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif condemned the killing on Twitter and alleged "serious indications" of Israeli involvement.

Iran's top army commander, Abdolrahim Mousavi, said the Islamic Republic reserves the right to take revenge, blaming the U.S. and Israel for the scientist's killing.

Fakhrizadeh's death comes days before the 10-year anniversary of the killing of Iranian nuclear scientist Majid Shahriari, which Iran also blamed on Israel.

The Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment.

The Pentagon, Department of State and the National Security Council declined to comment. President Donald Trump did, however, retweet a news article and commentary about Fakhrizadeh's death.

Little is known about Fakhrizadeh, a high-ranking Revolutionary Guard officer, long viewed as Iran's top nuclear scientist overseeing the regime's secret weapons programs.

In 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Iran of continuing to develop nuclear weapons and said Fakhrizadeh was working within Iran's Defense Ministry on "special projects."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu points at a screen with an image of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh during a news conference at the Ministry of Defence in Tel Aviv, Israel, April 30, 2018.
Amir Cohen | Reuters

"Remember that name, Fakhrizadeh," Netanyahu said at the time.

Fakhrizadeh's death is expected to escalate tensions between Iran and the United States, which have soared under the Trump administration following Washington's exit from the landmark Iran nuclear agreement.

The standoff with Iran

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani makes a speech during a ceremony in Tehran, Iran on January 10, 2019.
Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA accord, brokered by the Obama administration, lifted sanctions on Iran that had crippled its economy and cut its oil exports roughly in half. In exchange for sanctions relief, Iran accepted limits on its nuclear program until the terms expire in 2025.

In 2018, the Trump administration withdrew the United States from the JCPOA. Trump called it the "worst deal ever."

The president has previously said that he wants to reach a broader deal with Iran that puts stricter limits on its nuclear and ballistic missile work and suppresses the regime's role in regional proxy wars. Tehran has refused to negotiate while U.S. sanctions remain in place.

Following Washington's exit from the nuclear deal, other signatories of the pact ⁠— France, Germany, the U.K., Russia and China ⁠— tried to keep the agreement alive. 

In October, the United States unilaterally reimposed United Nations sanctions on Tehran through a snapback process, which other U.N. Security Council members have previously said Washington does not have the authority to do because it withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018.

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Trump notifies U.N. Security Council the U.S. is restoring U.N. sanctions on Iran

The relationship between the U.S. and Iran took another turn for the worse during the summer of 2019 following a string of attacks in the Persian Gulf.

In June, U.S. officials said an Iranian surface-to-air missile shot down an American military surveillance drone over the Strait of Hormuz. Iran said the aircraft was over its territory.

That strike came a week after the U.S. blamed Iran for attacks on two oil tankers in the Persian Gulf region and after four tankers were attacked in May.

The U.S. that June slapped new sanctions on Iranian military leaders blamed for shooting down the drone. The measures also aimed to block financial resources for Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Tensions soared again in September of last year when the U.S. blamed Iran for strikes in Saudi Arabia on the world's largest crude processing plant and oil field.

That attack forced the kingdom to cut its production operations in half and triggered the largest spike in crude prices in decades and renewed concerns of a new war in the Middle East. Iran maintains that it was not behind the attacks.

Earlier this year, the U.S. carried out an airstrike that killed Qasem Soleimani, Iran's top military commander.

Iranian mourners gather during the final stage of funeral processions for slain top general Qasem Soleimani, in his hometown Kerman on January 7, 2020.
Atta Kenare | AFP | Getty Images

Soleimani's death led the regime to further scale back compliance with the international nuclear pact. In January, Iran said it would no longer limit its uranium enrichment capacity or nuclear research.