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The Government and the Guards’ Public Battle Over the Assassination

December 2, 2020
Ehsan Mehrabi
6 min read
Five days after the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, at least five competing narratives have been circulating about the details of his death
Five days after the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, at least five competing narratives have been circulating about the details of his death
Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, said "intelligence agencies had received information" that Fakhrizadeh was to be assassinated
Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, said "intelligence agencies had received information" that Fakhrizadeh was to be assassinated
Information about Fakhrizadeh's whereabouts was never a secret
Information about Fakhrizadeh's whereabouts was never a secret

Five days after the assassination of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, at least five narratives have been circulating about how he was killed, disseminated by various officials and the media.

In the Islamic Republic, in addition to the Ministry of Intelligence, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) also has an intelligence organization. In recent years, with the expansion of the Guards’ intelligence activities, the parallel operations of the two intelligence agencies have come under fierce and repeated criticism. Over the last few days, this issue has once again been laid bare.

In the simplest terms, the Ministry of Intelligence and the Revolutionary Guards blame each other. There are revealing claims from various administrations, too. For example, the current government has pointed out that Fakhrizadeh had been awarded a medal for the part he played in the talks resulting in the historic signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal. But Fereydoun Abbasi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government, has spoken about the "disturbance" the government staged against him and threatened to expose the matter.

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The Ansar Protection Corps, which is responsible for protecting Islamic Republic officials, has been offering protection to the staff of Iran's nuclear program since 2009. So the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh has prompted criticism of this institution and the Revolutionary Guards, which oversees the Corps. On the other hand, media outlets close to the Guards have accused the Ministry of Intelligence of failing to uncover plans for his assassination. The Ministry of Intelligence has not yet responded, but a government spokesperson and the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council have defended it.

Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, said "intelligence agencies and systems had received information" that Fakhrizadeh was to be assassinated in the location where he was killed. "But the enemy used a completely new, professional, and specialized style in this assassination."

Government spokesperson Ali Rabiei said that "spy and terrorist organizations were under our surveillance and the location and target of the assassination were predicted. With a little attention and adherence to protection protocols, we could have thwarted this crime."

Shamkhani’s comments, and similar comments made by other officials on social media, have met with strong reactions and even ridicule from some people. Some have also seen it as these officials’ implicit acknowledgment of Israel’s power.

Fereydoun Abbasi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization in Ahmadinejad's government, who himself has been the target of a terror attack, said the success of the assassinations did not signify the power of the assailants. He also said that people involved in Iran's nuclear program could not live in secrecy.

He contrasts the situation to Soviet nuclear scientists who lived in secret, saying the Iranian nuclear scientists and operatives assassinated between 2010 and 2012 lived in normal homes, went to public places, and did not conduct their lives in secret.

Information about Fakhrizadeh's whereabouts was never a secret and was even made public in the past. His name had been mentioned many times by the opposition group the Mojahedin Khalqh Organization [MKO], also known as the People’s Mojadehin Organization and by the acronym MEK, as well as by Israel. Information had even been leaked regarding his villa near Absard where he was assassinated. Fereydoun Abbasi also said there have been rumors and predictions about his assassination since 2005.

Despite Ministry of Intelligence agents’ insistence that espionage and foreign security issues are its responsibility, the Guards’ intelligence service has been routinely intervening in these matters. A few days before Fakhrizadeh's assassination, the documentary Medal: Anonymity raised the historic issue of parallel security institutions. In the case of Fakhrizadeh's assassination, however, the Revolutionary Guards intelligence service has remained silent.

 

Contradictory Narratives About the Assassination

Five days on, the exact story of Fakhrizadeh's assassination has not yet been confirmed. Shohreh Pirani, whose husband Dariush Rezaeinejad was assassinated in 2011, gave an interview about what she understood had happened.

According to Pirani’s story, Fakhrizadeh was in a car with his wife and was driving. Guards followed him in other cars behind him.

She says Fakhrizadeh got out of the car after two bullets were fired at the windscreen and he felt a tremor and heard a noise coming from the radiator and tires, He was going toward the bodyguards' vehicle when he was shot in the shoulder.

Pirani says the head bodyguard threw himself on Fakhrizadeh and four bullets were fired at him, two of which went through him or beside him and hit Fakhrizadeh. But then she said that the head guard retreated after being shot, and further bullets hit the scientist, finally killing him.

According to hear, Fakhrizadeh's wife had got out of the car, and then a Nissan van carrying timber exploded right after the shooting ended.

Before Parani’s story, however, came a published account from Javad Mogouei, a documentary filmmaker with links to the Revolutionary Guards. Mogouei wrote that "12 people were present on the scene,” four of whom were on motorcycles.

"The electricity in the area was cut off half an hour before and all the cameras were turned off and there were no video recordings," he wrote. Some have the filmmaker has exaggerated, and that his account is dramatic and inaccurate.

Following this account, however, Fars News Agency reported that no one was on the scene and the shooting was carried out by a remote-controlled shotgun on a Nissan pickup truck. According to the news agency, the entire operation lasted three minutes.

Ali Shamkhani agreed, saying the assassination operation was "very complex and carried out using electronic equipment and no one was present at the scene." Fars News Agency further published a report about how automatic rifles work. Although Shamkhani has been widely quoted, the government’s full and official version of the incident has not yet been made public.

 

Did Fakhrizadeh Support the JCPOA?

Following the assassination of Fakhrizadeh, the Islamic Republic News Agency published photos of President Hassan Rouhani awarding him a second-degree medal for his role in negotiations leading up to the JCPOA.

The images had not previously released for security reasons, the agency reported. Fereydoun Abbasi, however, objected to what he called the "confiscation" of Fakhrizadeh's assassination, indicating that the government was trying to suggest a close relationship where none existed. He accused the Rouhani government of "disturbing" Fakhrizadeh and his entourage, and of trying to weaken the institution under his management. He then threatened to speak out if the government continued to portray Fakhrizadeh as a supporter of the JCPOA.

The principlist conservative media re-published remarks Fakhrizadeh had made after the assassination of the Commander of the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, Ghasem Soleimani, in January. "The United States has beaten and killed, but still sends a message that they want to defuse tensions; imagine what kind of creature we are dealing with; how do you want us to go and negotiate with such a creature? Negotiate to do what? Do you want the situation to get worse than this? We do not have any medicine or dollar; we cannot even sell our oil."

"Negotiate to do what?” Fakhrizadeh says in the audio file of the interview. "Sign the FATF [the inter-governmental body the Financial Action Taskforce, which seeks to combat the financing of terrorism and money laundering] for what? What happens if we sign the CFT [specific anti-terrorist financing measures]?”

Fakhrizadeh’s assassination has undoubtedly shook the Islamic Republic, and its reverberations look set to continue, exposing the fault lines the country’s political, government,  security and ideological bodies and institutions, and brought to the world by media outlets pushing competing and often contradictory agendas.

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