Iran’s top nuclear scientist, long identified by U.S. and Israeli intelligence as the guiding figure behind a covert effort to design an atomic warhead, was shot and killed Friday in what Iranian media called a roadside ambush as he and his bodyguards traveled outside Tehran.

For two decades, the scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was the driving force behind what U.S. and Israeli officials describe as Iran’s secretive nuclear weapons program. And his work continued after Iran’s push to develop a bomb was formally disbanded in 2003, according to U.S. intelligence assessments and Iranian nuclear documents stolen by Israel nearly three years ago.

One U.S. official — along with two other intelligence officials — said that Israel was behind the attack on the scientist. It was unclear how much the United States may have known about the operation in advance, but the two nations are the closest of allies and have long shared intelligence regarding Iran, which Israel considers its most potent threat.