Iran held solemn funerals for 17 Revolutionary Guards killed in a munitions blast on Monday, including a key figure in its ballistic missiles programme, as a US magazine pointed a finger at Israel.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei attended one ceremony held in Tehran, in honour of Major General Hassan Moqaddam and seven other Guards members, according to footage aired by state television.
Moqaddam, responsible for industrial research to ensure the Guards’ self-sufficiency in armaments, specialised in artillery during the 1980s Iraq-Iran war before founding the force’s ballistic programme, according to information provided by officials in Tehran.
The 17 Revolutionary Guards were killed on Saturday in an explosion described as accidental by Iran that rocked a military base in Bid Ganeh, some 20 kilometres (12 miles) west of Tehran.
The blast occurred as “ammunition was taken out of the depot and was being moved outside toward the appropriate site,” Guards spokesman Ramezan Sharif said, without mentioning why Moqaddam was present at the site.
But Moqaddam’s deputy said he “was busy with his scientific research work until his dying moments.”
“He had an accident as he was carrying out scientific and research tasks and was martyred,” commander Mousavi, whose first name was not given, was quoted as telling the ISNA news agency.
Moqaddam had “spent 25 years of his life to establish and develop the (missile) defence programme” of Iran, Mousavi added.
Set up after the 1979 Islamic revolution, the Guards are in charge of Iran’s missile programme, including Shahab-3 missiles with a range of 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) capable of hitting Israel.
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak on Sunday hailed the deadly munitions blast and said he hoped for more such incidents.
“I don’t know the extent of the explosion,” Barak told Israel’s military radio when asked about the incident. “But it would be desirable if they multiply.”
Time magazine on Monday said the explosion was the work of the Israeli spy agency Mossad, citing an unidentified “Western intelligence source.”
“Don’t believe the Iranians that it was an accident,” the source told Time, adding that other plans were in effect to prevent Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. “There are more bullets in the magazine.”
A top Guards commander meanwhile admitted Monday that Moqaddam had been a sought-after potential target, without questioning the cause of the incident.
“Iran’s current missile capability is owed to commander Moqaddam’s efforts,” Brigadier General Abbas Khani told the official IRNA news agency, adding that “due to his role… the enemy always wanted to identify and eliminate him.”
Saturday’s blast came amid international condemnation of Iran following the release of a new UN nuclear watchdog report accusing Tehran of working towards the development of nuclear warheads to fit inside its medium-range missiles.
Iran has long rejected Western and Israeli allegations that its nuclear programme is geared toward military objectives, saying its activities are solely civilian.
Israeli officials in past weeks have warned Iran of the possibility of military strikes against its nuclear sites.
US military experts in late October proposed in Congress that the United States organise covert operations to assassinate commanders of the Revolutionary Guards.