An Iranian nuclear scientist, long suspected by the West of masterminding a secret atomic weapons programme, was assassinated near Tehran on Friday, Iranian state media reported.
Mohsen Fakhrizadeh died of injuries in hospital after armed assassins fired on his car, according to Iranian media.
Fakhrizadeh has long been suspected by Western, Israeli and Iranian exile foes of the Islamic Republic to have masterminded what they said was a covert atomic bomb programme. Iran has long denied seeking to weaponise nuclear energy.
“Unfortunately, the medical team did not succeed in reviving (Fakhrizadeh), and a few minutes ago, this manager and scientist achieved the high status of martyrdom after years of effort and struggle,” Iran’s armed forces said in a statement carried by state media.
Fakhrizadeh is believed to have headed what the UN nuclear watchdog and US intelligence services believe was a coordinated nuclear weapons programme in Iran, which the Islamic republic said it shelved in 2003.
He has the rare distinction of being the only Iranian scientist named in the International Atomic Energy Agency’s 2015 “final assessment” of open questions about Iran’s nuclear programme and whether it was aimed at developing a nuclear bomb.
The IAEA’s report said that he oversaw activities “in support of a possible military dimension to (Iran’s) nuclear programme” within the so-called AMAD Plan.
Israel has also described the AMAD Plan as Iran’s secret nuclear weapons programme, and says it seized a large chunk of an Iranian nuclear “archive” detailing its work.
“Remember that name, Fakhrizadeh,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a 2018 speech revealing details from the archive, naming Fakhrizadeh as AMAD’s chief.
Netanyahu had said that after AMAD was shut down, Fakhrizadeh continued working at an organisation within Iran’s Defence Ministry on “special projects”.
Condemning the move, Iran's Foreign Minister Javed Zarif hinted at the possibility of Israeli involvement in the attack.
"Terrorists murdered an eminent Iranian scientist today. This cowardice—with serious indications of Israeli role—shows desperate warmongering of perpetrators," he tweeted, while calling upon the international community "to end their shameful double standards & condemn this act of state terror."
Meanwhile, Defence Minister Brigadier General Amir Hatami tweeted that the assassination of a prominent Iranian nuclear scientist displayed “the depth of enemies’ hatred” towards the Islamic Republic.
State television described Fakhrizadeh as one “of our country's nuclear scientists” and said Israel “had an old and deep enmity towards him”.
A spokesman for Netanyahu questioned by AFP in Jerusalem declined to comment.
Iran's armed forces chief of staff called Fakhrizdeh's death “a bitter and heavy blow to the country's defence system” and warned of “severe revenge” for those behind it.
“We assure [Iranians] that we will not rest until we have chased and punished” those involved, Maj Gen Mohammad Bagheri said in tweets picked up by state news agency IRNA.
Fakhrizadeh's assassination comes less than two months before Joe Biden is to take office as US president.
Biden has promised a return to diplomacy with Iran after four hawkish years under President Donald Trump, who withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and began reimposing crippling sanctions.
Trump said at the time that the deal known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, did not offer sufficient guarantees to stop Tehran from acquiring an atomic bomb. Iran has always denied it wants such a weapon.
Trump on Friday retweeted reports on Fakhrizadeh's assassination, without commenting on it himself.
'Strike killers like lightning'
Hossein Dehghan, military adviser to Iran's supreme leader and a former senior officer in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, accused Israel of trying to provoke a war through the assassination.
“In the last days of the political life of their gambling ally (Trump), the Zionists are trying to intensify pressure on Iran to create a full-blown war,” he tweeted.
“We will strike the killers like lightning.”
Ellie Geranmayeh of the European Council on International Relations said on Twitter that the “objective behind the killing wasn't to hinder [Iran's] nuclear programme but to undermine diplomacy”.
She noted that recent high-level visits by US officials to Israel and Saudi Arabia “raised flags something being cooked up” to “provoke Iran & complicate Biden's diplomatic push”.
The killing of Fakhrizadeh is the latest in a series of assassinations of nuclear scientists in Iran in recent years that the Islamic republic has blamed on Israel.
The New York Times reported earlier in November that Al Qaeda's second-in-command was secretly shot and killed in Tehran by two Israeli operatives on a motorcycle at Washington's behest.
The senior leader, who went by the nom de guerre Abu Muhammad al-Masri, was killed in August along with his daughter, Miriam, the widow of Osama bin Laden's son Hamza, the Times said, citing intelligence sources.
Iran said the report was based on “made-up information” and reaffirmed its denial of the presence of any of the group's members in the Islamic republic.
Iran's state news IRNA and Mehr news agency at the time reported a similar incident and identified the victims as Habib Dawoud, a 58-year-old Lebanese history teacher, and his daughter Maryam, 27, without giving further details.