Days after the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the country’s state media painted an elaborate picture of the killing that makes it sound like something straight out of a second-rate spy movie.
A bulletproof car. A remote-controlled machine gun. A seemingly self-destructing vehicle.
According to Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency, the assassination played out something like this: Fakhrizadeh was traveling with his wife in a bulletproof car in the city of Absard, east of Tehran. They were surrounded by a security detail of three vehicles.
Fars reported that Fakhrizadeh heard what sounded like bullets hitting his car and decided to investigate for himself. When he got out of the vehicle, he was shot at least three times from a Nissan car that was approximately 150 meters (164 yards) away – the length of one and a half football fields. The Nissan then exploded. The entire event lasted three minutes, the news agency said.
The semi-official Iranian Students News Agency reported that Fakhrizadeh’s car was hit by gunfire, followed by an explosion and more gunfire.
IRIB, a state television outlet, reported that the explosion happened first, followed by gunfire from attackers.
The technology is not actually that far-fetched, according to intelligence and security experts who spoke with CNN – but they are skeptical that such a sensitive and precise operation would have been carried out remotely.
A remote operation carried out from a distance certainly has its advantages, but three experts suggest that it introduces more risk factors into an operation with little apparent room for error.
“Generally speaking, it (a remote weapon) is a device that can be effective in certain circumstances,” said an Israeli security expert who wished to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue.
“You solve the problem of getting too close to the target,” he explained. “It’s accurate enough. You can practice a lot. And you can create a stable situation when there are lots of moving parts.”
Iran claims it has evidence that Israel was behind the assassination of Fakhrizadeh, one of the country’s top nuclear scientists, but it has not presented any of its evidence, and Israel has not claimed responsibility. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office has refused to comment on Fakhrizadeh’s death.
If the assassination was carried out remotely, either from another country or from a distance of a few kilometers, it would have been immensely complex, with much of the risk coming before the killing itself happened.
A country or actor would have to smuggle in valuable technology, including communications relays, satellite receivers and a weapon that could be operated remotely, experts say. To avoid immediate detection, the equipment would probably have to be smuggled in piecemeal and assembled once inside Iran. Throughout the process, the equipment would have to be secretly stored somewhere.
Fars claims the vehicle used in the assassination exploded, so some sort of remotely-activated explosive would also have to be stored securely.
During the operation itself, none of this equipment could fail, since there would be no one on site to fix it. A communications failure. A jammed gun. A self-destruct device that didn’t detonate. Any single failure could compromise the entire assassination and leave the technology on the side of the road for Iranian security forces to intercept.
“I don’t think that (a remote-control gun) was used there,” said the security expert. “I think the Iranians published that to minimize the scale of the group who did it and the scale of penetration into the country by operational elements.”
But he said that a remote assassination “is not fantasy, it is a good idea.”
The technology to fire at a target from a remote-controlled vehicle is not particularly new. Rafael, an Israeli defense company specializing in weapons, sells its Samson 30 Remote Weapon System to more than 25 other countries, and, while it is much too large to fit in a Nissan, this is hardly the only such system on the market. Germany, Spain, the United States, Australia and others all manufacture similar systems.
“It is something we already have in the military,” said retired Brig. Gen. Nitzan Nuriel, a former director of Israel’s Counter-Terrorism Bureau, noting it does not mean Israel was responsible for the assassination.
“We do have a machine gun controlled from far away,” he said. “We have observation abilities around Gaza which also have the ability to shoot, and it is controlled from afar. It is not something you have to have someone in place in order to do.”
Jack Watling, a defense expert at the Royal United Service Institute, told CNN the mai