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Mohsen Fakhrizadeh died in hospital after armed assassins gunned him down in his car, according to state media. Iran swiftly blamed Israel – and suggested it had acted with the blessing of US President Donald Trump.
In the last days of the political life of their ally, the Zionists seek to intensify pressure on Iran and create a full-blown war
Hossein Dehghan, military adviser to religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei lashed out in an angry tweet in which he pledged to “strike as thunder at the killers of this oppressed martyr”.
In a reference to Mr Trump, defeated by Joe Biden in November 3’s US Presidential election, he added: “In the last days of the political life of their ally, the Zionists seek to intensify pressure on Iran and create a full-blown war.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted of “serious indications of Israeli role” and called on Western countries to “end their shameful double standards & condemn this act of state terror”.
Mr Fakhrizadeh has for years been described by both Western and Israeli intelligence services as the leader of a covert atomic bomb programme which was halted in 2003, but which both Israel and the United States believe Iran is trying to revive – accusations Tehran denies.
A statement issued by Iran’s armed forces said: “Unfortunately, the medical team did not succeed in reviving Mr Fakhrizadeh, and a few minutes ago, this manager and scientist achieved the high status of martyrdom after years of effort and struggle.”
Semi-official news agency Tasnim suggested “terrorists blew up another car” before firing on a vehicle carrying Fakhrizadeh and his bodyguards in an ambush outside the capital.
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Neither Israel nor the White House, Pentagon, State Department or the CIA has commented, and neither has Mr Biden’s transition team.
Irrespective of who was behind the attack, it is guaranteed to escalate already raised tensions between Tehran and Washington in the last weeks of the Trump Presidency.
In 2018, Mr Trump pulled the United States from a deal reached under Obama, his predecessor, by which sanctions on Iran were lifted in return for curbs on its nuclear programme.
Mr Biden has said he will aim to restore that agreement, although such a move would be highly controversial.
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Speculation has been rife that Mr Trump may be plotting to target Iran in the last few weeks of his tenure in the White House.
Earlier this month, a US official confirmed the 74-year-old had asked military aides for a plan for a possible strike on Iran – but decided against it after being warned it could ignite a wider Middle East conflict.
In January, Mr Trump ordered a US drone strike in Baghdad which killed Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military commander.
Iran retaliated by firing missiles at a US base in Iraq, the closest the two foes have come to war in decades.
Mr Fakhrizadeh was the only Iranian scientist named in the International Atomic Energy Agency’s 2015 “final assessment” of open questions about Iran’s nuclear programme.
The IAEA’s report said he oversaw activities “in support of a possible military dimension to Iran’s nuclear programme”.
He was a central figure in a presentation by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2018 accusing Iran of continuing to seek nuclear weapons.
Mr Netanyahu commented: “Remember that name, Fakhrizadeh.”
Speaking before the story broke today, before the news of the attack on Fakhrizadeh emerged, an Israeli official said Israel was discussing with Gulf Arab states how to tackle Iran.
Tzachi Hanegbi, who sits in Netanyahu’s security cabinet, told Tel Aviv radio station 102 FM: “The story is not Trump, nor even Israel.
“The story is Iran – the growing dread that a new US administration will go back to the nuclear deal which threatens the very existence of the Gulf countries,” Tzachi Hanegbi, who sits in Netanyahu’s security cabinet, told Tel Aviv radio station 102 FM.
“We will know how to handle the issue of the Iranian threat, even if through our own means.”
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