TEHRAN, Iran — Iran held a funeral service Monday for the slain scientist who founded its military nuclear program two decades ago, with the Islamic Republic's defense minister vowing to continue the man's work “with more speed and more power.”
An honor guard carried the casket containing the body of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who reportedly was gunned down in a military-style ambush Friday that Iranian officials have blamed on Israel.
Israel, long suspected of killing Iranian nuclear scientists over the last decade, has declined to comment on the attack.
Fakhrizadeh headed Iran’s so-called AMAD program, which Israel and the West have alleged was a military operation looking at the feasibility of building a nuclear weapon. The International Atomic Energy Agency says that “structured program” ended in 2003. U.S. intelligence agencies concurred with that assessment in a 2007 report.
Israel insists Iran still maintains the ambition of developing nuclear weapons, pointing to Tehran’s ballistic missile program and research into other technologies. Iran long has maintained its nuclear program is peaceful.
Monday's service took place at an outdoor portion of Iran's Defense Ministry in Tehran, with officials including Revolutionary Guard chief Gen. Hossein Salami, the Guard's Quds Force leader Gen. Esmail Ghaani, civilian nuclear program chief Ali Akbar Sahei and Intelligence Minister Mamoud Alavi. They sat apart from each other and wore masks due to the coronavirus pandemic as reciters melodically read portions of the Quran and religious texts.
Defense Minister Gen. Amir Hatami gave a speech after kissing Fakhrizadeh's casket and putting his forehead against it. He said Fakhrizadeh's killing would make Iranians “more united, more determined.”
“For the continuation of your path, we will continue with more speed and more power," Hatami said in comments aired live by state television.
Hatami also criticized countries that hadn't condemned Fakhrizadeh's killing, warning: “This will catch up with you someday.” Overnight, the United Arab Emirates, which just reached a normalization deal with Israel, issued a statement condemning “the heinous assassination." The UAE, home to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, warned it “could further fuel conflict in the region.”
Iran holds funeral for slain nuclear scientist, vows to respondNov. 30, 202000:59
Last year, the UAE found itself in the middle of an escalating series of incidents between Iran and the U.S. Though long suspicious of Iran's nuclear program, the Emirates has said it wants to de-escalate the crisis. The UAE just started passenger air service to Israel and Israelis are expected to vacation in the country over Hanukkah in the coming days.
Hatami also called the nuclear arsenal of the U.S. — and the stockpile of atomic bombs Israel long has been suspected of holding — “the most dangerous threat against humanity.”
Mourners later buried Fakhrizadeh in the courtyard of Imamzadeh Saleh mosque in north Tehran.
Just after the burial, state TV's English-language Press TV reported a weapon recovered from the scene of the attack bore "“the logo and specifications of the Israeli military industry.” State TV's Arabic-language channel, Al-Alam, claimed the weapons used were “controlled by satellite,” a claim also made Sunday by the semiofficial Fars news agency. NBC News was not able to independently confirm those allegations.
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Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the country’s Supreme National Security Council, separately told state TV that Iran's enemies had launched “a number of failed operations” against Fakhrizadeh in the past.
“This time, the enemy applied a completely new, professional and sophisticated method,” Shamkhani said, without elaborating.
In response to the killing, Iran's parliament has begun a review of a bill that would stop inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The nuclear watchdog has provided an unprecedented, real-time look at Iran’s civilian nuclear program following the country’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
The deal has unraveled after President Donald Trump’s unilateral 2018 withdrawal of the U.S. from the accord. Iran’s civilian atomic program has since continued its experiments and now enriches a growing uranium stockpile up to 4.5 percent purity.
That’s still far below weapons-grade levels of 90 percent, though experts warn Iran now has enough low-enriched uranium to reprocess into fuel for at least two atomic bombs if it chose to pursue them. The proposed bill reportedly also would require Iran’s civilian atomic program to produce at least 265 pounds of uranium enriched to 20 percent — a short technical step to 90 percent.
Iran’s 290-seat parliament is dominated by hard-liners who likely would support the bill. It ultimately would have to be approved by Iran’s Guardian Council. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also has final say on all matters of state.