The Unclear Facts of the Iranian Assassination
Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, said to be Iran’s most senior nuclear scientist, was assassinated on November 27. Iranian media announced Fakhrizadeh had been killed quite quickly after the attack. It is unprecedented for Iranian state media to acknowledge an incident of this gravity so swiftly. Fakhrizadeh was a mysterious figure who was rarely seen or photographed in public, but the reports of his death quickly included several pictures of him never seen previously.
Moreover, the regime’s rapidly changing and improbable narratives of how he died cast doubts on anything that has previously been officially stated about Fakhrizadeh.
The flurry of rapidly changing and even contradictory narratives put out by the Iranian regime and top officials raise questions about who killed Fakhrizadeh and why. For seasoned Iran watchers, the pattern of contradictory narratives to hide the real truth is a familiar one. It happened when Iran shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 and would not immediately acknowledge its own missiles hit the plane.
Judging by the regime’s previous track record in situations of such high sensitivity, one would have expected the Internet to be shut down within minutes of Fakhrizadeh’s death. But pictures and videos of the scene were also immediately posted online by eyewitnesses without any security prevention or interference.
The killing quickly became headline news around the world, with the narrative that yet another “Iranian nuclear scientist” was assassinated by a foreign secret service agency, likely to be the Israelis. To back this conclusion, the mainstream media all pointed to the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had mentioned Fakhrizadeh by name three times in 2018 while unveiling Iran’s nuclear archive, which Israel shipped out from a secret outpost in Tehran’s outskirts. “Remember his name,” Netanyahu said.
Who was Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, full name Mohsen Fakhrizadeh Mahabad, and what exactly happened in Absard, 70 kilometers east of Tehran, in this green picturesque small town with its yellowish hills overlooking the Alborz mountains?
Little is known about Fakhrizadeh’s life before 1979. He was born in 1957, in the religious city of Qom, the main hub of Iran’s Shia seminaries. After the 1979 revolution, he obtained a master’s degree in solid state physics from Khajeh Nassir Toosi University of Technology in Tehran. He then got involved with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and various military and defense projects. Since 2005-2006, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had asked to interview Fakhrizadeh, but Iran refused to make him available.
A UN Security Council resolution in 2007 identified him as a senior scientist in Iran’s Ministry of Defense and Logistic of Armed Forces and as the former head of the Physics Research Center (PHRC) at Lavizan-Shian, an alleged undeclared nuclear site northeast of Tehran, where 140 metric tons of topsoil reportedly were removed to sanitize the site before an IAEA inspection.
Iran’s official narrative of his assassination has changed substantially in just a few days, raising questions about what happened. Initially, a truck driver interviewed by state media claimed he saw a blue Nissan pickup truck van explode, followed by a gunfight from both sides of the road. He then saw one of the assailants lying on the road shooting at him, which prompted him to reverse away from the scene. He told state TV that five or six people were involved in the shootout.
Fereydoon Abbasi-Davaani, the former head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, gave a more detailed account on Iran’s state television about a Nissan pickup truck stopping in front of Fakhrizadeh’s convoy, and then an assault squad consisting of two snipers and four gunmen in a Hyundai Santa Fe opening fire. Four motorcycles were also reportedly used by the assailants.
The pro-regime Iranian documentary filmmaker Javad Mogouei, who knew one of Fakhrizadeh’s bodyguards, then posted more details of what had happened on his Instagram account. Mogouei said there were 12 assailants in total, and only four bodyguards were protecting Fakhrizadeh and his family members. Mogouei also claimed that one of the bodyguards, Haamed Asghari, was killed after he threw himself on Fakhrizadeh trying to protect him.
Iranian news media also reported the death of the bodyguard and praised his ultimate sacrifice and martyrdom to protect the country’s top scientist. State TV also interviewed Iran’s defense minister, Brigadier General Amir Hatami, who claimed Fakrizadeh was targeted “because he had recently innovated a Corona test kit which was instrumental in our struggle against the coronavirus and they didn’t want us to succeed in this struggle.”
While the narrative of the 12 enemy assailants against only four heroic bodyguards explained why the “enemy” won the day against an “invincible” Iranian security service, it also raised questions as to how 12 attackers could have gotten away so quickly and disappeared into thin air.
There is just one road between Absard and the nearest towns in both directions. How could 12 attackers manage to kill Iran’s top scientist in broad daylight and get away with it, in a high security designated area where many of Iran’s top rank revolutionary guards have their weekend homes?
Pictures of Fakhrizadeh’s Nissan Teana raise other questions. Taken from different angles, the pictures show a car that seemed remarkably intact with a few bullet holes in its windshield and the small rear window. The images do not match the dramatic shootout described by Iranian state media.
Later, official news denied that bodyguard Haamed Asghari had been killed, saying he suffered slight injuries as a result of his heroic action and will soon leave the hospital.
This report was followed by a completely revised narrative published by the official Fars News Agency. It claimed that there were no assailants at the scene, but Fakhrizadeh was killed by a remote controlled machine gun with Israeli military markings that was on the back of the Nissan pickup truck. Later, Iran’s Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), Ali Shamkhani made a bizarre claim that Iran “knew Fakhrizadeh was going to be assassinated and when and where the hit was to take place and we were ready for it. However, they used a new professional specialized technique unknown to us.”
At the same time, the regime issued posters of four Arab separatists wanted in conjunction with the assassination.
Based on all the above, there can be many different scenarios as to what actually happened. Was he killed by a highly elite foreign agency? Or is it possible that it was yet another internal purge that got rid of Fakhrizadeh? Due to the nature of the Iranian regime, at this time it’s impossible to know for certain.
Claiming Israel was behind the assassination provides Iran with the justification to further violate the nuclear accords by enriching more uranium, and to justify possible Iranian retaliatory missile launches. As the world collectively bemoans this “criminal act” and almost gives a license to Iran to retaliate against Israel, the only ones really smiling today are the mullahs in Iran.
Investigative Project on Terrorism Senior Fellow Potkin Azarmehr is a London-based investigative journalist, business intelligence analyst, and TV documentary maker who was born in Iran. He regularly contributes to several newspapers and television stations on Iran- and Middle East-related news. You can follow him @potkazar.
A version of this article was originally published by the Investigative Project on Terrorism.