A top Iranian nuclear scientist believed to be the driving force behind the country’s nuclear program was killed in a drive-by shooting on Friday, The New York Times reports.
Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who is believed to be behind the country’s controversial nuclear weapons development over the past two decades, was fatally shot while traveling in a vehicle outside of the capital of Tehran.
The scientist is believed to have continued working to develop nuclear weapons even after the core part of the effort was halted in the early 2000s, according to intelligence from the US and Israel.
Iranian media reported on Friday that Fakhrizadeh was badly wounded in the shooting and doctors at a nearby hospital were unable to save him.
Iranian officials called the attack an act of terror and vowed to retaliate.
“He was their senior-most nuclear scientist and was believed to be responsible for Iran’s covert nuclear program,” former Pentagon official Michael Mulroy told the Times. “He was also a senior officer in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and that will magnify Iran’s desire to respond by force.”
Intel suggests Israel behind attack:
Three intelligence officials told The Times that Israel was behind the shooting.
It is unclear how much the Trump administration knew about the attack in advance but the two countries have close intelligence sharing.
Fakhrizadeh has long been a top target of the Mossad, the country’s intelligence agency, which has been linked to multiple assassinations of Iranian scientists, including some of Fakhrizadeh’s deputies.
Attack may provoke major retaliation:
The attack could set off a “sharp reaction” in Iran, similar to its strikes following the killing of Qassim Suleimani, the general of the Quds force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, earlier this year, according to the Times.
The attack could also complicate President-elect Joe Biden’s plan to revive the Iranian nuclear deal, which Israel has long opposed.
Trump has increasingly focused on Iran behind the scenes since the election, asking about options for potential strikes against the country before he leaves office.
Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which triggered speculation that the two countries may be planning a strike against Iran.
Trump has also fired numerous top Pentagon officials, including former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who pushed back on planning against Iran.