It was the IRGC that was entrusted with the protection of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who Iran used to claim was a university researcher but who official obituaries said was a brigadier-general high up in the defence ministry. Israel believes he headed the military arm of the nuclear programme, overseeing the research needed to fit a nuclear warhead to a ballistic missile.
Critical voices within the Iranian establishment, including a government spokesman, have already claimed that Mr Fakhrizadeh’s security team had been warned of a plot against his life, with details of when it would take place.
The more sophisticated the plot and the weapons that killed Mr Fakhrizadeh, the less culpable the IRGC might seem. What is certain is that in the early afternoon of Friday, November 27, the brigadier was in a Nissan Teana car with his wife, driving with a protection detail to his home in the town of Absard, 50 miles from Tehran. The convoy took the eastern approach to Absard, a picturesque resort between mountain ranges and home to a number of Iran’s elite, along highway 79, the Firuzkuh Road. It took the looped exit slipway and turned south into town.
According to the initial accounts, a pick-up truck parked on the opposite side of the dual carriageway exploded with great force, bringing the convoy to a stop and sending debris flying 300 yards away. A gunfight followed, led by five or six men who got out of a vehicle parked by the motorcade’s side of the carriageway.
“As soon as the explosion ended, shooting started,” a lorry driver who witnessed the incident said on state television. “They were shooting from both sides. Then I saw one man lying on the road and shooting at me. I put my lorry in reverse gear.”
Another account, by Fereydoon Abbasi-Davani, a close friend of Mr Fakhrizadeh and a fellow nuclear scientist — who himself was injured in an assassination attempt in 2010 — gave more detail, presumably based on what he was told by officials. He said that two snipers and four other gunmen began the operation from a Hyundai Santa Fe. Four other men on motorcycles were also involved, he said.
It was not clear exactly where Mr Fakhrizadeh was killed. His sons, Hamed and Mehdi, said he died in his wife’s arms on the roadside. One version claimed he had got out of the car, perhaps at the sound of the initial explosion, to see what was happening.
More in keeping with Mossad’s methods would be that an assassin ran to the door, pulled him out to check his identity, and shot him twice, to make sure. One picture from the scene showed blood on the road.
Mehdi Fakhrizadeh said that his father was shot from about four or five yards away. His spinal cord was severed. Hamed Fakhrizadeh, the other son, arrived at the scene shortly after, describing it as a “war zone”.
Their mother gave an interview to state television within hours, but was vague on details. She was covered by her chador and it was not clear whether she had been injured. A friend said she had minor wounds and that she had described bullets flying overhead “from left and right”.
Early accounts said that a bodyguard, Hamed Asghari, had been shot four times after throwing himself in front of Mr Fakhrizadeh. Other sources say three bodyguards were killed.
The “official version” began to change two days later, when regime- affiliated news agencies published claims that a “remote-controlled gun” planted on the pick-up truck played a part. More strange details followed: the gun was controlled by satellite and contained elements of artificial intelligence, enabling it to zoom in on Mr Fakhrizadeh, which was presumably a reference to facial recognition technology.
The first mention of the remote-controlled gun came from the Fars news agency, which picked up an account by Javad Mogouyi, an IRGC film-maker who was a friend of one of the bodyguards, and who posted a story on Instagram. He talked of a 12-strong team carrying out the assassination.
However, Fars added that a gun on the pick-up opened fire before the explosives detonated, a claim elaborated by a succession of senior officials over the coming days, including Ali Shamkhani, secretary to the national security council. “The operation was a very complicated operation and was carried out by using electronic devices,” Mr Shamkhani said on the Monday. “No individual was present at the site.”
The final touch, the satellite-controlled artificial intelligence capacity, was added this week by Rear-Admiral Ali Fadavi, deputy head of the IRGC.
The idea of robot machineguns sounds like science fiction but is already science fact, so Mr Mogouyi’s account is to some extent credible. Israel uses remote-mounted machineguns to guard its border fence with Gaza, and they are said to have been responsible for a number of deaths.
The technology is also deployed in tanks, including British ones, to control turrets. Rafael, an Israeli manufacturer, makes a machinegun version. It is radio-operated from near by, however, rather than via satellite. Arms experts say that while weapons can be controlled by satellite — drones being the most obvious example — the signal transmission time would make such a system unwieldy for a ground-level assassination’s split-second precision.
“There’s a lag that makes it difficult to actually control a system with this level of accuracy,” said Arthur Holland Michel, an artificial intelligence specialist with the UN’s Institute for Disarmament Research. He said all the technical elements of the weapon described by Rear-Admiral Fadavi existed, but were not known to have been brought together into a single system. Facial recognition technology is also not fully reliable. Israel is said to have set Mossad a condition for its covert assassination programme that the risk of “collateral damage”, even to targets’ families, should be minimised.
As shown by the survival of Mrs Fakhrizadeh, this condition was observed. Would the Israelis rely on an experimental weapon for a high-stakes, moving target? “Even if you had these competencies and you managed to put them all together, I still can’t see a world where this is the method that is most likely to succeed,” Mr Holland Michel said. “There are other, more certain ways of killing.”
The Iranian version was met with derision within the Israeli intelligence community, and on social media inside Iran. Israel will not confirm, beyond a few hints, that it was behind the assassination, but one intelligence official who spoke to The Times was prepared to speak “hypothetically” about the assassination. “A large number of operatives are involved in such an operation,” the official said. “It wouldn’t make sense after carrying out all the stages to locate the target’s whereabouts and schedule and scouting out the location, not to have people on the ground to ensure he was indeed dead.
“It’s obvious that the Iranians are extremely embarrassed that such a complex operation was carried out deep within their territory, so they’re trying to make it sound like some kind of science fiction or James Bond film. Meanwhile, they’re still trying to work out how their security was breached so badly. Heads will roll, without a doubt.”
Iran’s leaders are said to be divided over whether to retaliate or to await the inauguration of President Biden, who wants to restore the 2015 nuclear deal, making its scientists less of a target.
One unanswered question is whether the US had approved the assassination. Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, is reported to have flown to Saudi Arabia for an unprecedented joint meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, the weekend before the killing.
It is highly probable that the CIA had an idea of what was about to happen. It may even have supplied logistical support, but it is highly unlikely that such a sensitive operation would be discussed at such a meeting, for reasons of operational security.
Iran’s scientists, for their part, may be keeping a closer eye on their own operational security from now on.
The Times UK