In the aftermath of the brazen assassination of Iran’s top nuclear official and military officer, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iranian officials and media outlets have offered up multiple conflicting, and often bizarre, accounts of how he died, even as Tehran scrambles to respond to the massive security breach.
The killing of Fakhrizadeh—probably by Israel, which has taken out numerous Iranian nuclear scientists in the past two decades—took place on a road outside of Absard, a mountain escape for Tehran’s elite where the scientist had an abode. According to all accounts, as his convoy neared an abandoned Nissan pickup truck, Fakhrizadeh’s convoy came under fire. The nuclear expert did not survive the attack.
An eyewitness placed live assassins at the scene: A truck driver who saw the attack said that, after the initial explosion of the Nissan pickup truck, assailants started to fire from two sides. He added that an individual who was sitting on the road fired towards his truck. The driver says there were probably five or six assailants.
The truck driver’s account is probably one of the most reliable, especially compared to the different narratives that followed. An Iranian documentary filmmaker claimed that 12 attackers were involved, and that none of the assailants was killed or arrested in the firefight. Fereydoon Abbasi, Iran’s parliamentary chairman and a former top nuclear official who survived a 2010 assassination attempt, quoted Fakhrizadeh’s bodyguards as saying that assailants exploded the Nissan pickup, and afterward snipers started firing at the entourage. Similarly, Defense Minister Amir Hatami said that Fakhrizadeh’s vehicle was fired upon, and then a Nissan in the vicinity exploded, and that the nuclear scientist later died at the hospital.
But not all agree that live assailants took down Fakhrizadeh. A narrative has emerged from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—of which Fakhrizadeh and his nuclear research program were a part, and which was responsible for protecting the scientist—that a satellite-controlled weapon took out the convoy on its own.
On Nov. 29, the IRGC-linked Fars News circulated a story claiming there were no assailants on the scene, and that a remote-controlled machine gun mounted on the Nissan shot and killed Fakhrizadeh. According to this account, Fakhrizadeh’s convoy was driving from northern Mazandaran Province, a luscious green area by the Caspian Sea, to Absard. A protection vehicle separated from the convoy to clear the path ahead. Fakhrizadeh exited his vehicle briefly, thinking the gun shots were a car accident, and was then fired upon.
In another narrative—told on Dec. 1 on state television—Shohreh Pirani, the widow of nuclear scientist Daryush Rezainej (who was killed in 2011) cited Fakhrizadeh’s family as saying that Fakhrizadeh was driving one of the cars, and his wife was next to him. The couple got out of their vehicle and ran towards Fakhrizadeh’s bodyguards in the other cars of the convoy. A bullet stuck Fakhrizadeh’s shoulder. The bodyguard next to Fakhrizadeh threw himself on the scientist, but was knocked off after several bullets hit him, which left Fakhrizadeh wide open. Apparently, no bullets struck Mrs. Fakhrizadeh in this hailstorm-of-bullets narrative.
In an interview with state media on Dec. 4, one of Fakhrizadeh’s sons claimed that his father’s security detail had warned him about the danger and urged him to call off his drive, but that he rejected it because he had to teach a class and attend an important meeting. (That narrative raises many questions about competence, and it is probably the IRGC trying to save face over accusations that it ignored intelligence.)
In the same interview, and in yet another contradiction, the other Fakhrizadeh son said that his father was shot four to five times from a range of four to five meters after he stepped out of the car, initially thinking he was in an accident. Mrs. Fakhrizadeh was next to her husband the whole time during the assassination, and he claims that she said, “I do not know why none of these bullets hit me, I had gone [in front of him] so that the bullets would not hit him [Fakhrizadeh].”
Apparently, the IRGC deputy commander Ali Fadavi ignored the state media interview with Fakhrizadeh’s son, going a step further than previous narratives to claim that a remote-controlled machine gun utilizing artificial intelligence and facial recognition assassinated Fakhrizadeh, while leaving his wife—who was only “25 centimeters away”—unharmed.
Mohsen Rezai, former IRGC chief commander and current Expediency Council secretary, went even further, claiming that the perpetrators used an “intelligent” satellite-guided weapon equipped with a laser and silencer. He pointed to a report by the armed forces general staff chief that the weapon in question belonged to NATO.
There have also been conflicting reports about whether the vehicle was bullet-proof. Images clearly show it was not.
The narratives of killer robots, worthy of a Michael Bay movie, betray a likelier truth: a small team of highly trained, professional assassins was sent by an adversary’s professional intelligence service that thoroughly penetrated the Islamic Republic’s top echelon and recruited high-level moles right under its nose.
Amid all these contradictory accounts, Iranian officials have scrambled to explain the latest massive security breach. Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani said that intelligence services knew about the potential plot, including the time and place, but that the warnings were not taken as seriously as they should have because “the enemy” had tried to kill Fakhrizadeh for two decades. He also repeated the claim that a remote-controlled machine gun was used, adding that it was guided via satellite.
A spokesman for the administration of President Hassan Rouhani said that the Intelligence Ministry, which nominally falls under the cabinet but also answers to the Office of the Supreme Leader, had warned Fakhrizadeh’s security detail, indirectly referencing the IRGC, about the plot several days before the attack. (The IRGC’s Ansar ol-Mahdi Protection Corps has been in charge of providing security to nuclear scientists, according to the unit’s then-commander Brigadier General Ali Nasiri in 2018, who once boasted that the assassinations of scientists stopped when the unit took charge.) The Intelligence Ministry, which has recently received a blessing to increase its staff by 50 percent, is trying to distance itself from the security failure and blame the Guard Corps.
Announcing a special working group operating under the Prosecutor General to investigate Fakhrizadeh's assassination, Judiciary chief Ebrahim Ra’isi has demanded intelligence and security services to “not waste a moment” in identifying “infiltrating networks” among their ranks. On Dec. 2, the Intelligence Ministry claimed it had identified the perpetrators of the attack and vowed that Iran would design a “reciprocal” response after conclusion of its investigation. Then, on Dec. 8, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, a senior adviser to the Parliament Speaker, claimed that perpetrators had been identified, some arrested, and that the Islamic Republic would deliver “a firm response in a not-too-distant future.” He, too, pointed fingers at Israel.
On Dec. 7, expatriate site IranWire, citing unnamed sources, reported that the Intelligence Ministry has attempted to interrogate several Guard Corps members in its investigation, but that the IRGC has warned it to back off, and that IRGC Counter Intelligence Organization would lead the investigation. Even though the sourcing for this report is unclear, the scenario is entirely feasible, given that the intelligence services are publicly fighting over the breach.
Even before Fakhrizadeh’s assassination, questions arose of a compromised intelligence apparatus, especially in the IRGC. The past few years have seen Israel extract a tranche of Iran’s nuclear archives, a top general killed by the U.S. in a drone strike, an explosion at a nuclear facility this summer, and the recent assassination of a top Al-Qaeda operative in the streets of Tehran.
Iran’s media and pundits have heavily criticized the government for the security breach, though hardline media are directing their blame mainly at the Rouhani administration. An editorial on Defa Press, an outlet linked to the armed forces, slammed officials for not taking the necessary steps to protect Fakhrizadeh, and accused senior diplomats of “smiling” and chatting with “Zionist regime spy Kylie Moore-Gilbert” three days before Fakhrizadeh’s death, saying that such diplomacy highlights the “weakness” of those “who extended hand of friendship.” (Moore-Gibson is a British-Australian academic who was taken hostage in 2018 and freed last month in a reported prisoner swap for several Iranians abroad.)
Reformist pundit Mehdi Mahmoudian called on security agencies to stop “partisan games” and focus on national security. Abbas Abdi, a 1979 U.S. embassy hostage-taker and pundit, attributed the security breach to widespread corruption in the intelligence services. And the former Islamic Republic Broadcasting (IRIB) director Ezatollah Zarqami, a hardline figure, said that “the people” expect answers about “intelligence services’ incapability in combating the Zionist regime and Iran’s self-restraint policy toward Trump.”
Ahead of the 2021 presidential elections, the assassination has also provoked intense factional fighting, and several hardline figures have vociferously slammed the Rouhani administration. A 2021 presidential hopeful, the top IRGC commander Hossein Dehghan, who is an adviser to the Supreme Leader, said that officials must provide answers on the security breach and the “infiltration” network that led to Fakhrizadeh’s assassination. Rahim No’i-Aqdam, a retired Guard Corps commander who held a top post in Syria, said scientists have been targeted in the past decade because “the enemy” no longer feels threatened by officials, who are “useless” and influenced by “infiltrators,” referring to officials like those in the Rouhani administration. He called for a revolutionary administration to come to power. Hardline MP Javad Karimi Qodusi accused Rouhani and diplomats of a meeting between Fakhrizadeh and the IAEA that led to his assassination. (An Iran nuclear agency spokesman denied this.)
To buttress its credentials, the Rouhani administration released a photo showing Rouhani bestowing a medal to “martyr” Fakhrizadeh in 2016 for his contribution to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran deal. Responding angrily, Fereydoon Abbasi, MP and a former top nuclear official who knew Fakhrizadeh for more than three decades, threatened that if “JCPOA supporters” want to “appropriate” Fakhrizadeh, then he would reveal “certain things about” Fakhrizadeh and “what he planned to do.” That was a reference to Fakhrizadeh’s covert nuclear activities that would undermine Rouhani’s ability to negotiate with the West over the nuclear program. Abbasi indirectly criticized Rouhani for pressuring state media to not reveal that Fakhrizadeh was a nuclear scientist when the news broke of his assassination.
Tehran now faces a tough choice between meeting expectations for retaliation—particularly as this is the third high-profile attack on Iran this year—and not blowing up the chance of new nuclear talks with the incoming Biden administration. Rouhani administration officials have said that Iran should not fall into a “trap” ahead of a nuclear deal, even as Rouhani eventually took a harder stance in vowing retaliation. Top IRGC commanders have promised a calibrated retaliation. Chief commander Hossein Salami said it would come at a “time, location and quality determined by us,” and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has also demanded “punishment” of the perpetrators.
The media has echoed this split opinion, with hardline and IRGC outlets calling for a harsh response, while many reformist and moderate outlets urge more caution and deft handling. Hardline daily Kayhan, whose editor is appointed by the Supreme Leader, called for a strike on Israel’s Haifa port if and when Tehran proves Israel was behind the attack. The editorial added that “intelligent and precise” retaliation would establish deterrence because “America, the Zionist regime and their agents are not ready for a war.”
IRGC weekly Sobh-e Sadeq vowed that the Islamic Republic would give a “firm and intelligence response at the right time.” An editorial in hardline daily Javan said that Tehran must follow through with promises of revenge, especially considering it vowed similar actions after the assassination of Quds Force chief Qassem Soleimani in January and the explosion at Natanz nuclear facility in July. Otherwise, the editorial warned, the Islamic Republic’s word would be meaningless and thus invite more attacks. And Defa Press, linked to the armed forces, criticized officials and media who want to prevent or delay “harsh revenge.”
On the other hand, reformist daily Arman-e Melli warned that Tehran should think carefully about its response so as not to fall into the “trap” of the Trump administration and Israel. Similarly, an editorial in the daily Ebtekar warned that Saudi Arabia and Israel wanted to antagonize Iran into starting a war with the U.S. And an editorial in the daily Iran, owned by the administration, called for unity in devising a way to respond to Fakhrizadeh’s assassination, saying that “we can strike a harder blow to the enemy if [we] strike in a year” as opposed to in a month.
What is clear is that Fakhrizadeh was an integral figure of Iran’s nuclear program, which Iranian media have confirmed in his death, even though his life was shrouded in secrecy. According to Iranian media, Fakhrizadeh worked in IRGC nuclear research departments during the decades that Tehran insisted that its nuclear program was completely peaceful. Born in 1957 in Qom, he joined the IRGC upon its establishment in 1979, fought for some time in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), and ultimately rose to the rank of Brigadier General. He had a degree in nuclear engineering, and joined the Special Nuclear Research Unit (Team-32) in the Guard Corps Research Center in 1983.
From 1992 on, he became a science board member at IRGC Imam Hossein University Physics College, and “utilized this university’s capability for nuclear research.” He also headed the Malek Ashtar University of Technology. He had been flagged by Western intelligence agencies, the United Nations and nuclear inspectors for his central work on Iran’s covert nuclear weapons program that began in the 1980’s. The United Nations in 2007 designated him as an individual involved in nuclear and ballistic missile activities. Prior to that, Iranian media had said that he was a Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL) official and a former head of the Physics Research Center.
The nuclear archives Israel exfiltrated in 2018 show that Fakhrizadeh orchestrated the decentralization of the nuclear weapons program post-2003. Since 2011, the program has fallen under the Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research (Sazman-e pazhouhesh-haye novin-e defa’i), also known as SPND, which in theory falls under the defense ministry. Interestingly, Defense Ministry Amir Hatami has said that Fakhrizadeh was a deputy defense minister and chief of the Defensive Research and Innovation Organization (Sazman-e pazouhesh va no’avari-e defa’i), also SPND in its Persian acronym. That appears to be the same entity flagged by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and in the nuclear archives. Iranian officials, however, have claimed that Fakhrizadeh recently worked on a COVID-19 vaccine. Hatami later announced that SPND’s budget would double after the soldier-scientist’s death.
Amir Toumaj is an independent Iran researcher.