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Blame Game Intensifies Over Iranian Accomplice To Assassination Of Top Nuclear Scientist

A photo made available by Iranian state TV shows the aftermath of a deadly attack near Tehran that killed Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on November 27.

A blame game has intensified in Iran more than two months after the assassination of Iran's top nuclear scientist and the purported mastermind of an alleged atomic-weapons effort, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

The 59-year-old Fakhrizadeh was killed on a highway outside the Iranian capital in broad daylight in November in what was regarded as a major security failure.

Tehran has blamed the attack on Israel but also acknowledged the likely role of Iranian infiltrators in the killing of Fakhrizadeh, who officials say was also a deputy defense minister.

Israel, which is suspected of a decade-long series of assassinations of at least four other Iranian nuclear scientists, has not commented.

Iranian Intelligence Minister Mahmud Alavi said in a televised interview last week that a member of the armed forces made the initial preparations for the attack in Absard, some 60 kilometers from Tehran.

But the armed forces hit back, saying the unnamed individual had never officially joined its ranks, since he was fired during training in 2014.

Political Rivalries

The public debate over the incident underscores political rivalries within the Iranian establishment, which has sought to project unity over the nuclear program and recent moves aimed at pressuring the United States to remove sanctions imposed under U.S. ex-President Donald Trump.

Iran's covert and publicly declared nuclear activities have been at the center of a decades-long international dispute over what many Western governments and Israel say is a hidden weapons program.

Pressure has ratcheted up on both sides since Trump withdrew nearly three years ago from a 2015 landmark nuclear deal that offered Iran sanctions relief in exchange for Tehran abstaining from sensitive work like highly enriching uranium, among other things.

Speaking to Iranian state-controlled television on February 8, Alavi said it was impossible for his ministry to also keep intelligence watch over the "armed forces."

While he did not specify any part of the military, the widely feared intelligence branch of the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps has a history of arrests of dual nationals, academics, environmentalists, and others suspected of disloyalty.

Defending his ministry's actions in the context of the assassination, Alavi said his agents had warned five days before the attack that an "enemy" was planning to kill Fakhrizadeh "at this location," adding that "only the time was not clear."

Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh
Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh

"Fakhrizadeh was a member of the armed forces," Alavi said, "[and] the individual who made the first preparations for the terror act was a member of the armed forces. We can't to do intelligence work in the sphere of the armed forces."

Separately, Alavi told the semiofficial ISNA news agency that the individual, whom he described as "the main element" who prepared the killing, had been fired from the armed forces and left the country before the November 27 assassination.

He didn't say which branch of the armed forces -- which includes the IRGC, the army, and certain kinds of law enforcement -- the individual had been involved in.

The IRGC's Ansar al-Mahdi division is reportedly in charge of protecting key state figures as well as important sites.

In a statement issued on February 16, the armed forces said that the individual mentioned by Alavi had been discharged six years ago during training due to "moral problems and drug addiction."

The statement said the suspect had been completely cut off from the armed forces and thus "his security crime, like [those of] other members of society, falls within the scope of the mission and responsibilities of the Ministry of Intelligence."

Iranian Intelligence Minister Mahmud Alavi (file photo)
Iranian Intelligence Minister Mahmud Alavi (file photo)

The statement added that Alavi should have been more careful in his live comments so as not to provide any pretext to "the criminal enemies of the establishment, such as the United States and [Israel]" while safeguarding "the important position" of his ministry and "the dignity" of the armed forces.

In a separate statement, the IRGC-affiliated Tasnim news agency criticized Alavi's comments and said that even if all of his claims were true, he could have ordered the Intelligence Ministry to monitor the site of the planned assassination "until the dust settled."

"Wasn't Fakhrizadeh important enough for Alavi to issue such an order?" the hard-line Tasnim asked. It suggested Alavi's comments could instill a sense of state weakness instead of promoting security.

Rohani Under Fire

Iranian President Hassan Rohani
Iranian President Hassan Rohani

Hard-liners have used Fakhrizadeh's assassination to attack President Hassan Rohani and his cabinet. Some have alleged that the government had given the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), access to Fakhrizadeh, a claim that was denied within the government.

Shortly after the attack, government spokesman Al Rabiei defended the Intelligence Ministry, saying it had provided information about the target and likely location of the attack to "relevant security bodies."

Without saying names, Rabiei said that following security protocols could have prevented "the crime."

IRGC officials have said that Fakhrizadeh was killed by a "satellite-controlled" machine gun mounted on a pickup truck that later exploded, and that there were no assassins on the ground.

The British weekly Jewish Chronicle reported last week, citing intelligence sources, that Fakhrizadeh was killed by a one-ton automated gun that was smuggled into Iran piece by piece by the Israeli spy agency Mossad.

The Jewish Chronicle did not provide details of its sources or any evidence to back its report.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.