Tehran: Iran's president vowed Saturday to exact revenge over the killing of a scientist linked to Tehran's disbanded military nuclear program as he joined other officials in blaming Israel for the slaying.
Meanwhile, The New York Times quoted an American official and two intelligence sources that Israel was behind the assassination of Fakhri Zadeh, and said that the assassination may complicate the efforts of US President-elect Joe Biden to revive the Iranian nuclear deal.
Israel, long suspected of killing scientists a decade ago amid tensions over Tehran's nuclear program, has yet to comment on the killing Friday of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. However, the attack bore the hallmarks of a carefully planned, military-style ambush.
The Pentagon announced early Saturday that it sent the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier back into the Mideast.
Speaking to a meeting of his government's coronavirus taskforce, Rouhani reiterated that Fakhrizadeh's death would not stop its nuclear program. Iran's civilian nuclear program has continued its experiments and now enriches uranium up to 4.5%, far below weapons-grade levels of 90%.
But analysts have compared Fakhrizadeh to being on a par with Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who led the U.S.' Manhattan Project in World War II that created the atom bomb.
"We will respond to the assassination of Martyr Fakhrizadeh in a proper time," Rouhani said.
He added: "The Iranian nation is smarter than falling into the trap of the Zionists. They are thinking to create chaos." Friday's attack happened in Absard, a village just east of the capital that is a retreat for the Iranian elite.
Iranian state television said an old truck with explosives hidden under a load of wood blew up near a sedan carrying Fakhrizadeh.
As Fakhrizadeh's sedan stopped, at least five gunmen emerged and raked the car with rapid fire, the semiofficial Tasnim news agency said.
Fakhrizadeh died at a hospital after doctors and paramedics couldn't revive him. Others wounded included Fakhrizadeh's bodyguards. Photos and video shared online showed a Nissan sedan with bullet holes in the windshield and blood pooled on the road.
Hours after the attack, the Pentagon announced it had brought the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier back into the Middle East, an unusual move as the carrier already spent months in the region. It cited the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq as the reason for the decision, saying "it was prudent to have additional defensive capabilities in the region to meet any contingency."
The attack comes just days before the 10-year anniversary of the killing of Iranian nuclear scientist Majid Shahriari that Tehran also blamed on Israel. That and other targeted killings happened at the time that the so-called Stuxnet virus, believed to be an Israeli and American creation, destroyed Iranian centrifuges.
Those assaults occurred at the height of Western fears over Iran's nuclear program. Tehran long has insisted its program is peaceful. However, Fakhrizadeh led Iran's so-called AMAD program that Israel and the West have alleged was a military operation looking at the feasibility of building a nuclear weapon. The International Atomic Energy Agency says that "structured program" ended in 2003.
IAEA inspectors monitor Iranian nuclear sites as part of the now-unraveling nuclear deal with world powers, which saw Tehran limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
After Trump's 2018 withdrawal from the deal, Iran has abandoned all those limits. Experts now believe Iran has enough low-enriched uranium to make at least two nuclear weapons if it chose to pursue the bomb. Meanwhile, an advanced centrifuge assembly plant at Iran's Natanz nuclear facility exploded in July in what Tehran now calls a sabotage attack.
Fakhrizadeh, born in 1958, had been sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council and the U.S. for his work on AMAD. Iran always described him as a university physics professor. A member of the Revolutionary Guard, Fakhrizadeh served as the head of the Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research of the defence ministry at the time of his death.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had specifically mentioned Fakhrizadeh, "the father of Iranian military's nuclear programme", by name in a 2018 presentation. "Remember this name," he had said.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said there was evidence pointing to the involvement of Israel in the assassination, but it was unclear who exactly conducted the hit.
Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, Majid Takht Ravanchi, wrote in a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the UN Security Council on Friday that several top Iranian scientists had been killed in "terrorist attacks" over the last decade, and said "certain foreign quarters" were responsible.
He called the "cowardly" assassination of Fakhrizadeh an attempt to "wreak havoc" on the region and disrupt Iran's development in the fields of science and technology.
Iran's mission to the U.N., described Fakhrizadeh's recent work as "development of the first indigenous COVID-19 test kit" and overseeing Tehran's efforts at making a possible coronavirus vaccine.
(Based on inputs from agencies)