Debate raged in Iran on Sunday over how and when to respond to a top nuclear scientist’s assassination, blamed on arch-foe Israel, as his body was honoured at Shiite shrines to prepare it for burial.
Two days after Mohsen Fakhrizadeh died from wounds sustained in a firefight between his guards and unidentified gunmen near Tehran, parliament demanded a halt to international inspections of Iranian nuclear sites while a top official hinted Iran should leave the global non-proliferation treaty.
Iran’s Supreme National Security Council usually handles decisions related to the country’s nuclear programme, and parliamentary bills must be approved by the powerful Guardians Council.
President Hassan Rouhani has stressed the country will seek its revenge in “due time” and not be rushed into a “trap”.
Israel says Fakhrizadeh was the head of an Iranian military nuclear programme, the existence of which the Islamic republic has consistently denied, and Washington had sanctioned him in 2008 for activities linked to Iran’s atomic activities.
The scientist’s body was taken for a ceremony on Sunday at a major shrine in the holy city of Qom before being transported to the shrine of the Islamic republic’s founder Imam Khomeini, according to Iranian media.
On Monday live video from Tehran, shared by national outlet Iran Press, showed uniformed men gathering around images of Fakhrizadeh seemingly ahead of a procession.
His funeral will be held in the presence of senior military commanders and his family, the defence ministry said on its website, without specifying where.
Demands for ‘strong reaction’
Israel has not officially commented on Fakhrizadeh’s killing, less than two months before US president-elect Joe Biden is set to take office after four years of hawkish foreign policy under President Donald Trump.
Trump withdrew the US from a multilateral nuclear agreement with Iran in 2018 and then reimposed and beefed up punishing sanctions as part of its “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran.
Biden has signalled his administration may be prepared to rejoin the accord, but the nuclear scientist’s assassination has revived opposition to the deal among Iranian conservatives.
The head of Iran’s Expediency Council, a key advisory and arbitration body, said there was “no reason why (Iran) should not reconsider the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty”.
Mohsen Rezai said Tehran should also halt implementation of the additional protocol, a document prescribing intrusive inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilitates.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called Saturday for Fakhrizadeh’s killers to be punished.
Parliament speaker Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf called Sunday for “a strong reaction” that would “deter and take revenge” on those behind the killing of Fakhrizadeh, who was aged 59 according to Iranian media.
Call for strikes
For Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Fakhrizadeh’s killing was clearly tied to Biden’s arrival in office.
“The timing of the assassination, even if it was determined by purely operational considerations, is a clear message to president-elect Joe Biden, intended to show Israel’s criticism” of plans to revive the deal, it said.
The UAE, which in September normalised ties with Israel, condemned the killing and urged restraint.
The foreign ministry, quoted by the official Emirati news agency WAM, said Abu Dhabi “condemns the heinous assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, which could further fuel conflict in the region.
“The UAE calls upon all parties to exercise maximum degrees of self-restraint to avoid dragging the region into new levels of instability and threat to peace,” it said.
Britain, a party to the nuclear accord, said Sunday it was “concerned” about possible escalation of tensions in the Middle East following the assassination, while Turkey called the killing an act of “terrorism” that “upsets peace in the region”.
In Iran, ultra-conservative Kayhan daily called for strikes on Israel if it were “proven” to be behind the assassination.
Kayhan called for the port city of Haifa to be targeted “in a way that would annihilate its infrastructure and leave a heavy human toll”.
Iran has responded to the US withdrawal from the 2015 deal by gradually abandoning most of its key nuclear commitments under the agreement.
‘Revive Iran’s nuclear industry’
Rezai called on Iran’s atomic agency to take “minimum measures” such as “stopping the online broadcast of cameras, reducing or suspending inspectors and implementing restrictions in their access” to sites, Isna news agency reported.
Iran’s parliament said the “best response” to the assassination would be to “revive Iran’s glorious nuclear industry”.
It called for International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to be barred from the country’s atomic sites, said the legislature’s news agency Icana.
Some MPs had earlier accused inspectors of acting as “spies” potentially responsible for Fakhrizadeh’s death.
But the spokesman for Iran’s atomic energy organisation, Behrouz Kamalvandi, told Irna on Saturday that the issue of inspectors’ access “must be decided on at high levels” of the Islamic republic’s leadership.