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Iran accuses US, Israel in killing of top nuclear scientist

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran's top nuclear scientist. (Fars News Agency/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Iran’s supreme leader has called for retaliation for the assassination of the country’s top nuclear scientist, raising concerns about a new confrontation between Iran and Israel or the United States.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called for “following up on this crime and certainly punishing those responsible,” in a post on his official website on November 28.

Khamenei also pledged that the work of the scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, would continue.

The same day, Iranian President Hassan Rohani accused Israel of acting as a “mercenary” for the United States in connection with the killing of Iran’s leading nuclear expert.

“Once again, the wicked hands of the global arrogance, with the usurper Zionist regime as the mercenary, were stained with the blood of a son of this nation,” Rohani wrote on his official website on November 28.

“The global arrogance” is a term often used by Iranian officials to refer to the United States, while “the usurper Zionist regime” is a reference to Israel.

Rohani also promised a response “in due time.”

Israel’s N12 news agency quoted Israeli cabinet minister Tzachi Hanegbi as saying he did not know who carried out the killing.

N12 also reported that the government had placed all its embassies around the world on high security alert in the wake of Iran’s statement. Israel’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment.

Fakhrizadeh was assassinated in an ambush near Tehran in a brazen attack that threatens to escalate tensions between Iran and the United States and its close ally Israel.

The head of Iran’s nuclear agency, Ali-Akbar Salehi, vowed on November 28 that Fakhrizadeh’s killing would not impair Iran’s nuclear program.

“Fakhrizadeh’s path is now being continued even more intensively,” Salehi was quoted by Iranian media as saying.

The New York Times, citing one U.S. official and two other intelligence officials, said Israel was behind the attack on the scientist, although it wasn’t clear what, if any, knowledge the United States may have had about the operation.

The Pentagon, White House, State Department, and CIA have declined to comment.

The United States deployed the U.S. aircraft carrier Nimitz with accompanying ships to the Gulf on November 25, but a U.S. Navy spokeswoman said the deployment was not related to any threats.

“There were no specific threats that triggered the return of the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group,” naval commander Rebecca Rebarich, a spokeswoman for the U.S. 5th Fleet said in a statement quoted by AFP.

Israel has long been suspected of carrying out a series of targeted killings of Iranian nuclear scientists and other sabotage operations against Iran using operatives of the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an exiled opposition group.

The killing of Fakhrizadeh, who Western intelligence services regarded as the shadowy mastermind behind Iran’s past covert nuclear weapons program, may undermine U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s goal of reviving diplomacy with Iran when he enters the White House in January.

Biden has said he will try to rejoin the Iran nuclear accord that Trump quit in 2018 and work with allies to strengthen its terms, if Tehran first resumes compliance.

Fakhrizadeh led Iran’s so-called Amad program that Israel and the West say was a military operation assessing the feasibility of building a nuclear weapon. Tehran long has maintained its nuclear program is peaceful.

The International Atomic Energy Agency says that Amad program ended in 2003. IAEA inspectors currently monitor Iranian nuclear sites as part of Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, which Iran has gradually breached following the U.S. withdrawal.