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Iran Pledges Payback at ‘Right’ Time Over Scientist Killing

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 11/28/2020 Arsalan Shahla and Golnar Motevalli
Hassan Rouhani wearing a hat: Hassan Rouhani, Iran's president, gestures as he speaks during a news conference in Tehran, Iran, on Monday, Oct. 14, 2019. Rouhani said the attack on the Iranian oil tanker in the Red Sea was the work of a government not a terrorist group. © Bloomberg Hassan Rouhani, Iran's president, gestures as he speaks during a news conference in Tehran, Iran, on Monday, Oct. 14, 2019. Rouhani said the attack on the Iranian oil tanker in the Red Sea was the work of a government not a terrorist group.

(Bloomberg) --

President Hassan Rouhani said Iran will respond to the killing of its top nuclear scientist “when the time is right,” and accused Israel of an “act of terrorism” in a significant escalation of tensions in the Persian Gulf.

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a senior nuclear scientist working for the Ministry of Defense, was assassinated Friday in a shootout and car bombing on the outskirts of Tehran. Promising “severe revenge,” officials also pointed the finger at the U.S., potentially complicating President-elect Joe Biden’s bid to revive the Iranian nuclear deal.

The chances of salvaging that international accord, which restricts Iran’s nuclear program and prevents it from building a weapon, were already in doubt as Donald Trump seeks to use the final weeks of his presidency to cement America’s withdrawal.

The European Union, which wants to keep the pact alive, described Friday’s attack as a “criminal act” that “runs counter to the principle of respect for human rights,” while urging “maximum restraint.”

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Commenting Saturday on his official website, Rouhani referred to the “mercenary Israeli regime.” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed to pursue Fakhrizadeh’s killers and continue his scientific work.

The office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to comment on Friday, as did officials at the Pentagon.

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The Central Intelligence Agency didn’t immediately respond to questions about whether the U.S. had knowledge of plans to carry out an assassination. Trump retweeted a New York Times report on Fakhrizadeh’s killing on Friday, without comment.

Retaliation

Rouhani’s remarks on the timing of a possible response echo what Iran said after the U.S. assassinated General Qassem Soleimani in January -- an act that almost triggered a full-scale war between the two foes. Iran retaliated five days later by firing rockets at an American base in Iraq.

No serious casualties were reported in that strike and it was broadly seen as a calculatedly measured response. But in the aftermath, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet it mistook for a missile as it took off from Tehran, killing 176 people, mostly Iranian nationals.

Having withstood Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy for two years, Iran may be reluctant to aide his objective of jettisoning potential re-engagement with Biden, just weeks ahead of his exit from the White House.

But Rouhani is already under pressure from hardliners to take decisive action. Scores of protesters in Tehran, Mashhad and Qom demonstrated outside government buildings, burning the U.S. flag, chanting against officials and singling out ministers for failing to prevent the attack.

Afternoon Ambush

Fakhrizadeh was near the Rudehen campus of the Islamic Azad University, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) east of central Tehran, when his car was ambushed by gunmen, shortly before a bomb-laden Nissan pickup truck exploded close by, the semi-official Tasnim news agency reported.

The university professor was also the head of research and innovation at Iran’s Ministry of Defense and had a key role for many years in the country’s nuclear program. The head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, said he’d “made great strides in building Iran’s nuclear defense infrastructure,” according to the semi-official Iranian Students News Agency.

He had been singled out by Netanyahu in an April 2018 presentation on Iran’s nuclear program, claiming the scientist headed a secret project to develop nuclear arms.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, a United Nations watchdog, has said “Project Amad” was mothballed in 2003 and Iran dismissed Netanyahu’s presentation as “lies and war-mongering” at the time.

On Monday, Israeli media reported that Netanyahu had secretly flown to Saudi Arabia to meet Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo.

The three countries have built an anti-Iran axis in the Middle East over the past three years in an effort to isolate the Islamic Republic and topple its leadership.

(Updates with protests, comments from nuclear official from 11th paragraph.)

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