Associated Press – December 1, 2010
Iran said Wednesday it will increase security for its nuclear scientists as a funeral was held for a leading expert killed in a mysterious assassination that the government blamed on the Mossad and the CIA.
Iranian state media said the killing of the scientist and the wounding of another on Monday was part of a Western campaign to sabotage its nuclear program, which the U.S. and its allies suspect is aimed at producing weapons — something Iran denies.
According to Iran, that campaign included the abduction of Iranian scientists, the sale of faulty equipment and the planting of a destructive computer worm known as Stuxnet, which briefly brought Iran’s uranium enrichment activity to a halt last month.
Iran’s chief suspect is archenemy Israel, whose Mossad spy agency has a long history of assassinating foes far beyond the country’s borders. In this case, Iran accuses Israel of enlisting agents of an Iranian opposition group, the People’s Mujahedeen, to carry out the hit, the defense minister said. There was also coordination with the CIA and Britain’s MI6, he claimed.
The daring attacks — if they were the work of a foreign power — suggest that the standoff between Iran and the West over Tehran’s uranium enrichment program has entered a new and extremely dangrous phase.
Iran’s nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, said Wednesday the assassination was a warning to Iran before Dec. 6-7 nuclear talks with world powers.
“The wicked people wanted to demonstrate their ugly side, which is the policy of carrot and stick, prior to the upcoming nuclear talks,” Salehi said at the funeral, according to state TV.
The two scientists were targeted by bombs that hit their cars in separate parts of the capital. Tehran’s police chief has said assailants on motorcycles stuck magnetized bombs to their cars while they were moving through traffic and detonated them seconds later.
Time magazine reported a different account Tuesday, saying an explosive charge was placed inside the slain man’s car and detonated by remote control after he got into the vehicle. It quoted a Western intelligence expert with knowledge of the operation, and said the other attack was similar.
Several Iranian news websites said Wednesday the man who survived, Fereidoun Abbasi, realized he was under attack and was able to stop the car and jump out along with his wife.
Abbasi appears to be the more senior of the two. He is on a sanctions list under U.N. Security Council resolution 1747, passed in 2007, which described him as a Defense Ministry scientist with links to the Institute of Applied Physics, working closely with a scientist believed to be heading secret nuclear projects with possible military dimensions.
A pro-government website, mashreghnews.ir, said Abbasi was a laser expert and one of the few top Iranian specialists in nuclear isotope separation.
The slain man, Majid Shahriari, was a member of the nuclear engineering faculty at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran and was involved in an unspecified major project with the country’s nuclear agency.
However Shahriari’s expertise — neutron transport — is particularly interesting because it lies at the heart of nuclear chain reactions in reactors and bombs.
Days before the attack, a doctoral treatise was published at Tehran’s Amir Kabir University showcasing new strides in neutron calculation with Shahriari as the supervising professor, according to hardline rajanews.com news website.
The website says the treatise was significant because it sought to design a new generation of reactors.
Parviz Davoudi, a professor at the university and a former vice president, said Shahriari did have some protection, but did not give details.
Deputy Interior Minister for Security Affairs Ali Abdollahi said “protection for academics will be pursued more seriously.” He did not elaborate.
The United States, Israel and many other countries are alarmed by Iran’s nuclear program and say many elements of it are suspicious. Iran insists it only has peaceful intentions, like the production of nuclear power. But its enrichment of uranium — ostensibly to produce fuel for a future network of power reactors — is a process that can also be used to make weapons.
Iran insisted Monday’s assassination would not undermine its determination to forge ahead.
“This ominous terrorist attack was carried out by the Zionist regime in coordination with the intelligence services of the West, especifically the U.S. and Britain, with hypocrite mercenaries as agents on the ground,” Defense Minister Gen. Ahmad Vahidi was quoted as saying by the hard-line daily Kayhan.
Hypocrite mercenaries is a reference to the People’s Mujahedeen. The Iraq-based group claimed responsibility for dozens of deadly attacks in Iran over the past three decades.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran holds members of the U.N. Security Council responsible, saying that by putting Abbasi on the sanctions list it effectively gave the assassins his address.
Similar attacks have been blamed on Israel, such as the 2008 assassination of top Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyeh, killed by a bomb placed in a headrest in his car in Damascus, Syria.
It’s also suspected in the assassination of a top Hamas operative in a Dubai hotel by disguised killers early this year and of creating the complex Stuxnet computer worm.
Israeli officials refused to comment on speculation that the Mossad carried out Monday’s attack.
Yossi Melman, an Israeli journalist and historian who has written several books about intelligence matters, said he was almost certain that the Mossad did it, though he stressed he had no specific inside information.
He said few others would have the necessary motivation, know-how, intelligence and daring.
Associated Press writer Aron Heller contributed to this report from Jerusalem.