Reports are streaming out of Iran today as intelligence agencies and news networks alike are putting the pieces together on a deadly attack against the preeminent Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.
According to several outlets, the attack, which took place this morning outside Tehran, was initiated by an explosive device and was followed up with a barrage of small arms fire. Photos from the scene show the vehicle with several bullet holes in the windshield and side windows.
At the time of publishing, no organization or foreign military has taken responsibility for the attack. The New York Times is reporting that “one American official — along with two other intelligence officials — said that Israel was behind the attack on the scientist.”
But it’s obvious who was behind it: Mossad. More specifically, Kidon, Mossad’s specialized hit squad.
Mossad, Israel’s counterpart to the CIA, has a long history of carrying out attacks and assassinations in foreign nations, especially in Iran and various Arab countries. Kidon, which translates to “tip of the spear,” is Mossad’s ground force tasked with carrying out hits and raids. While Kidon and its methods are highly classified and covered in secrecy, there are a few known calling cards of the elite special operations group.
For starters, Kidon teams usually consist of four members. They are also known to employ explosives, either sticky or magnetic bombs, which usually after being detonated are immediately followed by fierce and swift small arms fire.
Last week, we suggested that a strike against Iran was imminent. Based on our analysis, we suspected that Mossad, at the direction of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, would carry out that strike. While we didn’t know the target, we did suspect that it would be related to Iran’s nuclear program.
Not only does today’s attack in Iran bear all the hallmarks of a Kidon hit, but it also seems to confirm our suspicions about the nature and timing of the attack. According to the Iranian Fars news agency, Fakhrizadeh “came under attack by three-four unknown assailants,” further supporting that it was a Kidon hit.
The attack also mirrors a series of assassinations that had taken place between 2010 and 2012. Those attacks had also targeted some leading scientists and engineers responsible for designing the nuclear missile technology of Iran’s nuclear program. Today’s hit falls on the eve of the anniversary of the killing of Iranian nuclear scientist Majid Shahriari.
Due to the clandestine nature of these hits, it is impossible to know who was actually behind this latest assassination. It’s possible the attack was carried out by an anti-government Iranian group, or non-state actors.
If it were Kidon, it would not have been an ad hoc mission. Ops like these take months, if not years, to plan and Mossad agents would have had to have been in-country for much of the planning phase. It is widely rumored that Mossad uses Azerbaijan as an entry point into Iran for such clandestine operations. With the recent turmoil in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, it would have been easy for the Israelis to move a team into Iran.
This leads to the underlying question of the strategic importance of a hit on Fakhrizadeh. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was the head of Iran’s Amad program. The Amad program, which Iran says is for developing civilian nuclear capabilities, has been alleged to be a covert military operation that aims to build a nuclear weapon. The International Atomic Energy Agency believes that Iran has “carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device” in a “structured program.” That program and Amad are believed to be one and the same.
But assassinating Mohsen Fakhrizadeh would likely not derail the program in its entirety. In a report from Al Jazeera, Iranian professor Mohammad Marandi said that eliminating one scientist would not topple Iran’s efforts to build nuclear weapons.
“Fifty years ago if they carried out this attack it would’ve had an impact. But now Iran’s nuclear program is developed, it’s highly diverse. It has many young scientists and these murders will be more detrimental to Iran’s antagonists, I believe, than Iran,” Marandi said.
Still, a strike of this nature will rattle Iran. The question is whether Iran will retaliate. And how?
Further, one wonders whether this is simply the first of several strikes against Iran that we will witness in the coming weeks and months.