Humiliated by the murder of a leading nuclear scientist, Iranian officials this week attempted to rewrite the attack as an episode of science fiction: Israel had him executed entirely remotely, spraying bullets from an automated machine gun propped up in a parked Nissan without an individual assassin on site.
Even hardliners mocked the new spin.
“Why don’t you just say that Tesla built the Nissan? It drove by itself, parked itself, fired and was blown up by itself? “A hardline social media account said. “Do you doubt this story as we do?”
Since the scientist’s assassination on Friday, conflicting reports in official news media about the escape or even the existence of a hit team – along with allegations of previous Interior Ministry warnings about the attack – have exposed tensions between rival Iranian intelligence agencies trying to evade blame for a vast security breach .
Iranian officials have vowed to avenge the murder of scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a senior official in the Defense Ministry. The prospect of a counter-attack against Israel or the West threatens to hamper efforts by the new government of Biden to revive a nuclear deal with Iran.
Mr. Fakhrizadeh, who oversaw Iran’s nuclear weapons program, was an obvious target. It had been publicly identified as a threat by Israeli leaders, and the elite Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard corps had made its protection a top priority.
His death marked at least the fourth high-profile murder under the protection of the Iranian security services that year, beginning with an American drone attack that killed Iranian General Qassim Suleimani in January.
The failure to arrest Mr. Fakhrizadeh’s killers has exacerbated a scandal over the government’s failure to prevent the attack itself. Iranians on social media mocked the new reports of a fully automated execution in order to minimize the embarrassment of the clean escape of the killers.
Officials in Israel, who have virtually publicly recognized the responsibility, declined to comment on the competing reports of the killing.
The use of a remote-controlled machine gun was out of the question. The Israeli military has such weapons and has used them elsewhere. Some Iranian reports said on Saturday that such a weapon was used in Friday’s attack, an afternoon ambush on a country road east of Tehran.
However, early official Iranian reports and testimony reported a firefight between the bodyguards of Fakhrizadeh and up to a dozen attackers. Current and former Israeli officials have boasted that Israeli intelligence agencies have been shown to safely liberate assassins from hostile areas, including Iran.
Israel is believed to have killed at least five Iranian scientists between 2007 and 2012 in order to derail Iran’s nuclear program, which Israeli officials see as an existential threat. Tehran has credibly claimed it captured only one of the perpetrators, an Iranian who confessed on television in 2010 that he had received training in Israel to plant a car bomb that killed a scientist when he left his garage.
The agents are believed to have escaped behind the other attacks and some major operations.
The role of a remote-controlled machine gun as part of a complex attack by a team of assassins was first covered over the weekend in a report on the murder published online by Javad Mogouyi, a documentary filmmaker with the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. His father and father-in-law are members of the wing of the organization charged with protecting Mr Fakhrizadeh, and Mr Mogouyi’s report was adopted as authoritative by several Iranian news organizations at the time.
Before the arrival of a dozen bombers, Mr Mogouyi wrote, a Nissan was parked at a roundabout, filled with explosives and armed with an automated machine gun. The remote-controlled weapon opened fire first, distracting Mr. Fakhrizadeh and his bodyguards as the assassins lay in wait.
An autonomous machine gun that seems to fit this description has been used by the Israeli military since 2010. Developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, the weapon contains a built-in optical system for aiming and photography. His name, which rhymes in Hebrew, means “you see, you shoot”.
Israeli news reports quoting a senior intelligence official said the military used the weapon to kill Palestinians trying to get into Israel from Gaza.
However, the claims that the killing was carried out entirely by a robotic weapon appeared to have come from the Revolutionary Guards. Two corps-controlled news outlets, Fars News and Tasnim, first published the claims on Sunday.
Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the National Security Council, repeated this report in an interview with Iranian state television on Monday. He also claimed that Iranian intelligence knew in advance that an Israeli attack on the scientist would take place on the street where it took place and that the armed opposition group, Mujahideen Khalq, was also involved.
“Absolutely,” said Mr. Shamkhani.
On Tuesday, a government spokesman said the intelligence ministry had warned the scientist’s security team weeks in advance of the “specific and precise details”. This appeared to be an attempt to blame the Revolutionary Guards for not stopping a possible assassination attempt, including potential locations.
“This crime could have been prevented if the security protocols had been followed and they had been a little more careful,” said spokesman Ali Rabeie at a press conference.
In light of conflicting claims, the report of a fully automated killing appeared to have found little resonance as it contradicted early eyewitness accounts broadcast on state media, as well as comments from family members of the murdered scientist.
Immediately thereafter, an unidentified eyewitness said he saw the Nissan explode and described an intense gun battle between bodyguards and assassins.
“A shooter sat in the street and started shooting in my direction,” said the witness, who estimated that there were about half a dozen assassins. “I put reverse gear immediately, but he kept firing.”
Other initial reports said one of the bodyguards, Hamed Asghari, threw himself at the scientist and stole four bullets from the assassins. Family members said the guard survived but was in critical condition.
In an interview on state television on Saturday night, Fakhrizadeh’s son Hamed said he arrived at the scene within minutes and that his mother was in the car with his father in her arms with his father from the moment of the attack until his death.
“It wasn’t an assassination attempt, it was a war zone,” said the son, approving the reports of a two-way shootout with the murderers.
The widow of another murdered scientist told state television that she met Ms. Fakhrizadeh after the attack and saw splinter wounds on her face and body. The widow, Shohreh Piran said Ms. Fakhrizadeh described “constant shots rushing over our heads from the left and right”.
Some reports initially alleged that one of the killers had been captured, although these claims have since been abandoned.
The conflicting reports sparked cynical humor on Iranian social media. After the robot claims were made public, Iranian Twitter spread cartoon images of a Transformer toy with a blue Nissan chassis sticking out of the chest.
The official narratives were so “contradicting”, wrote the writer Abbas Taheri on Twitter, “the heads of the Iranian media should all step back over this embarrassment.”
But serious concerns festered under the rug.
“There is an intelligence rift,” Brig. General Hossein Dehghan, chief military advisor to the Iranian supreme leader, said on state television. “There are people in the system who provide information to our enemies, and the enemy plans and executes plans based on these leaks.”