Iran claims slain nuclear scientist was working on virus detection kit, vaccine

The top Iranian nuclear scientist assassinated near Tehran Friday was a key figure in the nation’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic, and was involved in the development of homegrown virus testing kits as well as a vaccine for COVID-19, Iranian officials claimed Saturday.

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was long regarded by Israel and Western intelligence officials as the head of Iran’s rogue nuclear weapons development program, and was an officer in the regime’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), designated by the US as a terrorist organization.

He also served as head of the Iranian defense ministry’s Organization for Defensive Innovation and Research. Iranian Defense officials told the IRNA and Tasnim news agencies that projects developed under the department included Iran’s “first indigenous COVID-19 test kit.”

This kit, according to Tasnim, was of a standard similar to such kits used around the world and was deployed throughout the country’s hospitals. “Today this valuable product is also in the basket of our country’s export goods,” it said.

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh sits in a meeting with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran, Iran, January 23, 2019. (Office of the Iranian supreme leader via AP)

Fakhrizadeh’s work also included overseeing the development of a potential Iranian vaccine for the coronavirus, the agencies claimed.

It was not clear what Fakhrizadeh’s role in such projects would be, as a physicist.

Tasnim said the vaccine project had achieved “very good results” under Fakhrizadeh’s leadership and was currently in human trials.

Defense Minister Amir Hatami told IRNA Fakhrizadeh was also involved in the development of laser-based air defenses and non-radar detection of enemy aircraft.

“The dear martyr and our unassuming scientist, Dr. Fakhrizadeh, was the source of great services to Iran,” he said.

Iran has a history of dubious claims regarding scientific developments. In April the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) unveiled what it claimed was an Iranian-made smart system that could identify coronavirus in the environment instantly — from a distance of up to 100 meters.

British daily the Independent noted the detector was highly reminiscent of a fake bomb detecting tool once sold by a convicted British fraudster to Iraqi security forces, and to several other countries, including Saudi Arabia and Thailand. The supposed Iranian detector has not been heard from since.

Medics tend to a COVID-19 patient at the Shohadaye Tajrish Hospital in Tehran, Iran, Oct. 14, 2020 (Akbar Badrkhani/Iranian Health Ministry via AP)

Iranian officials have pointed the finger at Israel for the killing of Fakhrizadeh. The country has long been suspected of taking out scientists amid tensions over Tehran’s rogue nuclear weapons program, which Fakhrizadeh oversaw.

Friday’s attack happened Friday afternoon 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 gunfire, the semiofficial Tasnim news agency said.

Fakhrizadeh died at a hospital after doctors and paramedics couldn’t revive him. Three of Fakhrizadeh’s bodyguards were also killed. Photos and video shared online showed a Nissan sedan with bullet holes in the windshield and blood pooled on the road.

Top Iranian officials have called for retribution over the killing. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Saturday urged “punishing” those behind the assassination, adding that his work must be carried on.

This photo released by the semi-official Fars News Agency shows the scene where Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed in Absard, a small city just east of the capital, Tehran, Iran, Friday, Nov. 27, 2020. (Fars News Agency via AP)

He called for “following up on this crime and certainly punishing the perpetrators and those responsible, and… continuing the scientific and technical efforts of this martyr in all of the fields he was working in,” according to a statement on the supreme leader’s official website.

Khamenei called Mohsen Fakhrizadeh a “prestigious nuclear and defense scientist” and said he was “martyred by the hands of criminal and cruel mercenaries.”

The slaying threatens to renew tensions between the United States and Iran in the waning days of President Donald Trump’s term, just as President-elect Joe Biden has suggested his administration could return to Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers from which Trump earlier withdrew. 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 task force earlier Saturday, President Hassan Rouhani blamed Israel for the killing.

Rouhani said that Fakhrizadeh’s death would not stop its nuclear program, something Khamenei said as well. Iran’s civilian nuclear program has continued its experiments and now enriches uranium to levels of up to 4.5 percent, far below weapons-grade levels of 90%.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks in a meeting in Tehran, Iran, November 8, 2020. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

Analysts have compared Fakhrizadeh to Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who led the US’s Manhattan Project during 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.”

Fakhrizadeh had been sanctioned by the UN Security Council and the US for his work on AMAD, which Israel and the US have said was Iran’s clandestine nuclear weapons program. Iran always described him as a university physics professor. A member of the Revolutionary Guard, Fakhrizadeh had been seen in pictures in meetings attended by Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a sign of his importance in Iran’s theocracy.

In recent years, US sanctions lists named him as heading Iran’s Organization for Defensive Innovation and Research. The State Department described that organization last year as working on “dual-use research and development activities, of which aspects are potentially useful for nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons delivery systems.”

Agencies contributed to this report.

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