In a statement Saturday, Rouhani, referring to Israel, blamed the “usurper Zionist regime” for the killing and said Fakhrizadeh’s death would not impede Iran’s scientific “achievements.” In a separate speech, Rouhani tied the killing to President Trump’s coming departure from office.
Trump — who withdrew the United States from a nuclear pact that Iran struck with world powers five years ago — has ramped up sanctions and other pressures on Tehran since walking away from the deal aimed at reining in Tehran’s nuclear program. President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to work more closely with allies on Iran policies and work to rejoin the nuclear agreement.
“This brutal assassination shows that our enemies are passing through anxious weeks, weeks that they feel their pressure era is coming to an end and the global conditions are changing,” Rouhani said. “The Iranian nation is smarter and wiser than to fall in the Zionist trap,” he said, adding that Israel aimed “to cause commotion and turmoil.”
Officials in Israel have not commented.
The Pentagon announced Friday that the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier had been deployed back to the Middle East following maritime exercises in the Indian Ocean. While the timing of the announcement was unusual, the deployment, had been initiated before Friday’s attack to support U.S. troops withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet said “there were no specific threats that triggered the return of the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group,” Reuters reported.
Fakhrizadeh was widely regarded as the brains behind Iran’s nuclear program, including Tehran’s clandestine efforts to develop a nuclear bomb in the early 2000s. The physics professor, believed to be about 60 years old, has been identified by intelligence officials as the head of the Amad Plan, the secret nuclear weapons research program that sought to develop as many as six nuclear bombs before Iranian leaders ordered a halt to the program in 2003.
Formerly a reclusive figure rarely seen in public, Fakhrizadeh has more recently allowed himself to appear on official Iranian websites, including during events held by Iran’s supreme leader.
U.S. officials and the Biden team have yet to comment on the killing. On Friday, Trump retweeted veteran Israeli journalist Yossi Melman, who described the attack as a “major psychological and professional blow for Iran.”
There was no official reaction in Israel to the news, which broke at the beginning of the sabbath shutdown that began at Friday and will continue until sunset on Saturday. Israeli officials typically do not respond to accusations pointed their way following attacks in the region.
More recently, speculation has risen that Netanyahu has pushed the Trump administration to strike against Iran’s nuclear assets before Biden’s inauguration.
In a column posted early Saturday, Melman said the loss of Fakhrizadeh is unlikely to derail Iran’s progress in producing enriched uranium, while at the same time ramping up tensions and making Biden’s diplomatic hurdles more difficult to overcome.
If Israel’s involvement in the killing should be confirmed, the action could seen as a “deliberate attempt to exacerbate the situation, which is already extremely tense amid reports that Trump has considered bombing Iran as a parting gesture before he leaves the White House.”
The attack — which Iranian news agencies said involved a car bomb and gunmen — recalled the shadowy killings of Iranian nuclear scientists a decade ago and exposed holes in Iran’s security and intelligence agencies.
Accounts of Fakhrizadeh’s killing indicated his movements were being tracked and the attack was coordinated.
The semiofficial Tasnim news agency said the attack began with a car bomb that detonated in the path of Fakhrizadeh’s vehicle. Then “terrorists started shooting,” it reported.
But Brig. Gen. Amir Hatami, Iran’s defense minister, described a different chain of events in an interview with Iranian state television, saying the attack started with gunmen opening fire on Fakhrizadeh’s car. A pickup truck about 50 feet away exploded a short time later, he said. The gunfire continued, wounding the scientist and two of his bodyguards.
Sepah Cybery, a social media channel affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, said Saturday that it believed twelve attackers were involved, in addition to Fakhrizadeh’s four bodyguards, two of whom it reported were shot and are in serious condition.
In a message on Twitter Friday, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), wrote: “If the primary purpose of the killing of Mr. Fakhrizadeh was to make it harder to restart the Iran nuclear agreement, then this assassination does not make America, Israel or the world safer.”
Former CIA director John O. Brennan, a strong Trump critic, tweeted that the attack was “a criminal act & highly reckless.”
“It risks lethal retaliation & a new round of regional conflict,” he wrote. “Iranian leaders would be wise to wait for the return of responsible American leadership on the global stage & to resist the urge to respond against perceived culprits.”