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Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh given martyr status

Patrick Wintour and Oliver Holmes
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Iranian defence ministry</span>
Photograph: Iranian defence ministry

Iran has bestowed martyr status on the nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh at a full state funeral in Tehran, vowing to redouble his work after an assassination pinned on arch-foe Israel.

In footage carried by state TV, Fakhrizadeh’s casket was shown surrounded by flowers and pictures of him, alongside portraits of Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps killed by a US drone strike in Baghdad in January.

An honour guard carried Fakhrizadeh’s body to a podium, where reciters read the Qur’an and other religious verses in an outdoor area of the defence ministry.

Officials, including the defence minister, Gen Amir Hatami, attended the ceremony, sitting apart from each other and wearing masks because of the coronavirus pandemic. Owing to the scale of the pandemic in Iran, the crowds were kept socially distanced and relatively small.

Fakhrizadeh died after an elaborately planned ambush on Friday on the outskirts of Tehran.

Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the country’s supreme national security council, accused Israel on Monday of using “electronic devices” in the attack.

Contrary to previous reports, the semi-official Fars news agency claimed that were no assailants at the scene and that Fakhrizadeh was fired on by an automatic remote-controlled machine-gun, placed in a pickup car 150 metres away. Two bullets hit him in the side and one in the back, Fars claimed, and a bodyguard that came to cover him was also shot multiple times.

Fars said the entire operation lasted no more than three minutes, and ended with the pickup car exploding. It said the attack was conducted using electronic equipment, that there were no assailants on the scene, and that the owner of the pick-up vehicle had left Iran more than a month ago.

This unconfirmed account drastically changes the story of Fakhrizadeh’s killing. Authorities initially said a truck exploded and then gunmen opened fire on the scientist, killing him.

Iranian state TV claimed without evidence on Monday that a weapon recovered from the scene bore “the logo and specifications of the Israeli military industry” and that the weapon was “controlled by satellite”.

Iranian intelligence agencies have come under pressure to explain how such a prominent figure could have been assassinated in broad daylight on a highway so close to the capital. Officials have tried to put a lid on the debate by urging political parties not to use the scientist’s death as an opportunity to settle factional scores or jockey for position ahead of the presidential elections next year.

The killing of Fakhrizadeh – described by Israel as the “father” of Iran’s nuclear weapons programme – has once more heightened tensions between Tehran and its foes, with Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, accusing Israel of acting as Washington’s “mercenary”.

Israel, long suspected of killing Iranian nuclear scientists over the last decade, has declined to comment on the killing.

Iran has always denied it has any interest in developing nuclear weapons, saying its research was for peaceful purposes. This claim was reiterated by Hatami on Monday, who also vowed: “No crime, no assassination and no stupid act will go unanswered by the Iranian people. They must know that they will be punished for their actions.”

As a symbol of Iran’s defiance, Hatami said the budget for the ministry of defence’s research and innovation organisation had been doubled next year. Fakhrizadeh had led the research department.

Rouhani has stressed his country would seek its revenge for the assassination in “due time” and not be rushed into a “trap”, with less than two months to go before the US president, Donald Trump, leaves office after four hawkish years at the White House.

The US president-elect, Joe Biden, has promised a return to diplomacy with Iran, after Trump unilaterally withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and began reimposing crippling sanctions.

The Iranian parliament has said all future UN inspections of Iran’s nuclear sites should be ended as a result of the assassination.

The response suggests the nuclear deal, already breached by Iran by breaking the agreed limits on enriched uranium stockpiles, is going to come under severe pressure in the coming weeks as Iran responds to the attack.

The parliament said Iran should withdraw from so-called additional protocol – the measure that gives the UN weapons inspectors from the IAEA access to Iran’s nuclear sites.

Such a move would probably be regarded as the effective end of the nuclear deal by the three European signatories to the deal, Germany France and the UK. Iranian hardliners have long argued that Israeli spies operate within the IAEA inspectorate.

Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is visiting the Middle East this week, reportedly in an attempt to persuade Saudi Arabia and Qatar to end their three-year geopolitical dispute, which has split the Gulf Cooperation Council, and shown Arab states pointing in different foreign policy directions.

Kushner is to meet the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, in the Saudi city of Neom, and the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in that country in the coming days.

Previous White House efforts to broker a peace deal between the two sides failed as the two countries not only have personal rivalry for influence but sharply different views on how the region should develop. Qatar has condemned the assassination, but Saudi Arabia, Iran’s greatest rival, has said little.