Mahan Abedin – Asia Times August 27, 2011
As the trial of Majid Jamali Fashi, the confessed murderer of Iranian physicist Massoud Ali Mohammadi, gets underway in Tehran, more light has been shed on the secret but intense Israeli war against Iranian scientists.
Amid the confusion, rampant speculation and propaganda, two issues are clear. Foremost, the four-year Israeli assassination campaign exposes the weaknesses in Iranian protective security measures. Second, if the campaign continues apace, Iran will come under increasing pressure to strike back.
In many ways, Ali Mohammadi fits the profile of the dozens of Iranian scientists that have been targeted for recruitment, coercion or in his case assassination by Western and Israeli intelligence services. With a long and distinguished academic career, during which he published 53 research articles in peer-reviewed academic journals, Ali Mohammadi was also engaged in undeclared projects that were clearly of immense interest to intelligence services.
A quantum field theorist and a professor of elementary particle physics at Tehran University, Ali Mohammadi was assassinated by means of a booby-trapped motorbike on January 12, 2010, immediately outside his home in the Gheytariyeh neighborhood of northern Tehran.
Although Ali Mohammadi is not known to have any declared links to Iran’s nuclear program or any other sensitive project, it is clear from the trial of his alleged murderer that he was involved in work that was deemed to be of great national importance.
His bereaved wife Mansoureh Karami made an emotional appearance at the trial where she poured scorn on Israel and the terrorist methods employed by the Jewish state’s intelligence services and ended by declaring that her husband’s only crime was great “love” for and dedication to his country.
Although it is pure speculation, Karami’s description of her husband may be a calculated admission by the late Ali Mohammadi’s family that the physicist may have been involved in work beyond that of his declared academic job and interests.
In the immediate aftermath of Ali Mohammadi’s assassination, there were attempts to link him to the opposition “Green” movement with reports claiming the scientist held “reformist” views and had even signed a petition to that effect. The implication of these essentially speculative reports and rumors was that the Iranian government had arranged the scientist’s murder.
But even if Ali Mohammadi had been a reformist and a supporter of the “Green” movement, there is no contradiction between that position and a strong commitment to the Islamic Republic and its goals. Indeed, most reformists and the mainstream sections of the movement would argue the same.
Allegations that Ali Mohammadi had been assassinated by the same government that had employed and nurtured him for decades was never taken seriously by informed observers, analysts and the mainstream Western media. The consensus was that he was somehow connected to sensitive Iranian nuclear or defense programs and had been targeted by Western, or more likely Israeli intelligence services.
The London-based Daily Telegraph ran a story on Israel’s secret assassination war against Iranian scientists in February 2009, nearly a year before Ali Mohammadi’s assassination.
If Massoud Ali Mohammadi was typical of the type of scientist being targeted by the Israelis, then his confessed killer Majid Jamali Fashi is also typical of the type of agent and saboteur recruited by the Israeli secret service Mossad. Young, versatile and physically daring, he is not known to have been involved in politics. By his own admission, he had received US$120,000 for his services to Israeli intelligence, and that he was promised a further sum of $30,000 for killing Ali Mohammadi, but Fashi claims the Israelis failed to honor their debt.
From the early stages of the trial it appears that Fashi, an Iranian, was recruited at the Israeli consulate in Istanbul (Turkey) and that much of his early tasking and indoctrination took place there. However, he had also met Israeli intelligence officers in Baku (Republic of Azerbaijan) and Thailand. At one stage, he was smuggled into Israel for intensive training and preparation for his assassination campaign inside Iran.
According to his account at his trial, it was inside Israel that Fashi was presented with detailed and in some cases superfluous information on his intended target (including the color and size of the carpet in his home), even though the precise location of the target wasn’t revealed to him until three days before the operation.
A mock up of Ali Mohammadi’s house was used for training purposes, with Fashi practicing the placement of a booby-trapped motorbike just outside the scientist’s house.
From the evidence presented at his trial, it appears that Fashi was a lone operative bereft of a support network inside Tehran. Tasking appears to have been conducted via mobile phone and e-mails to an encrypted laptop. Fashi appears to have received instructions on the assassination immediately before the event. He claims he wasn’t aware of the identity of his target until after the assassination.
His claim that he regretted his actions and that he became depressed after he discovered his target’s true identity and subsequently refused to carry out more assassinations, thus prompting his Israeli masters to abandon him, must be taken with a pinch of salt. According to the available evidence, Fashi’s murderous exploits only came to an end following his identification and arrest by the Iranian authorities.
Science under attack
Asia Time Online’s sources in Tehran have confirmed the account presented at the trial, stressing that Israeli intelligence is using highly trained lone operatives to attack Iran’s scientific human resources.
Communication methods are kept as simple as possible in the belief that as the operatives are not known to Iranian intelligence, public modes of communication (such as tasking by mobile phone) will not trigger detection, and by the same token more covert methods of communication are likely to alert Iranian intelligence to the activities of these agents.
According to Asia Time Online’s sources, Iranian intelligence believes that at least another dozen agents fitting Fashi’s profile have been trained by the Israelis and are active inside Tehran.
While maximum efforts are being expended to identify and intercept these agents before they strike, it is virtually inevitable that more Iranian scientists will be killed before Iranian intelligence either gets on top of the problem or more likely manages to deter the Israelis from continuing with the assassination campaign.
The assassination of yet another scientist, Daryoosh Rezainejad, on July 23, highlights the gravity of the problem and the ferocity and determination with which the Israelis are prosecuting their covert war against Iranian scientists. Although not much is known about Rezainejad’s undeclared scientific activities, he is likely to have been involved in sensitive projects that many nations believe are aimed at developing nuclear weapons. Iran has consistently assured that its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes.
Despite official propaganda, at this stage at least, Iranian intelligence doesn’t believe that the United States Central Intelligence Agency is actively involved in the assassination of Iranian scientists. The available evidence suggests that the campaign is devised and directed solely by Israeli intelligence.
But the detailed information that guides these assassinations is believed to come from a variety of sources, effectively representing the combined intelligence-gathering efforts of major Western intelligence services.
The Israelis appear to know all the pertinent details about their targets, and much more besides, including the type and color of their household furniture. While few doubt the efficiency and determination of Israeli intelligence services, the type, extent and scale of the information collected points to the combined efforts of several national intelligence services and appears to suggest that these services have deployed the full extent of their intelligence capability against Iran’s scientific infrastructure, especially those components that are linked to national security projects.
For example, the full extent of the targets’ social network can only be reliably ascertained (from a distance at least) by mobile phone mapping. This technology in its most sophisticated form, and the technical and analytical expertise that underpins its operation, is believed to reside exclusively under the organizational umbrella of the Anglo-Saxon signals intelligence (sigint) infrastructure, namely America’s National Security Agency and Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters.
It is not clear at this stage under what conditions and guidelines Western intelligence services are supplying raw data on Iranian scientists to the Israelis and crucially whether these services tacitly approve of the assassination campaign.
Israel’s war against Iranian scientists began in January 2007 with the poisoning of nuclear scientist Ardeshir Hosseinpour. The campaign kicked into higher gear with the assassination of Ali Mohammadi in January 2010. In late November 2010, the Israelis assassinated nuclear engineer Majid Shahriari and on the same day an Israeli-trained assassin attempted to kill senior nuclear scientist Fereydoon Abbasi-Davani.
In a calculated snub to Israeli and Western intelligence, the latter was appointed head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization in February 2011.
Israeli intelligence claimed its latest victim, Daryoosh Rezainejad in late July. Rezainejad was shot dead in front of his wife and child outside a kindergarten in eastern Tehran.
The style and manner of all these assassinations, in particular the latest one, highlight Iran’s shockingly poor protective security procedures. It appears that highly important scientists involved in sensitive work are allowed to go by their daily lives without any obvious security or hindrance, thereby making them easy targets for Israeli assassination teams.
While plans are afoot to introduce standardized protective security procedures for senior Iranian scientists, implementation will be difficult for two overriding reasons. First, the nature of Iranian culture, particularly its focus on socialization and the importance of extensive family and friendship ties, is a barrier to protective security measures, which necessarily demand a measure of social isolation and apprehension. Second, protective security can potentially blow these scientists’ cover and alert friends and family to their undeclared work.
It would appear that the most effective form of protecting the lives of Iran’s most talented is deterrence at source, given the difficulties involved in introducing standardized protective security measures.
While the Israelis can’t realistically expect to seriously damage Iran’s nuclear and broader scientific infrastructure through a campaign of assassination, it is believed they are hoping to unsettle Iran’s elite scientific community by sowing fear and terror, with a view to forcing some of these men and women to abandon their work.
Given the stakes involved, and the revulsion registered across Iranian society at the murder of the country’s best brains, it is only a matter of time before Iran is forced to strike back.
Mahan Abedin is an analyst of Middle East politics.