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Iranian nuclear scientist assassinated

One Iranian nuclear physicist has been killed, and another injured, in separate bomb attacks today in Tehran.

Majid Shahriari was killed, and his wife injured, on his way to work at the Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran when his attackers, riding motorcycles, placed a magnetic bomb on his car shortly before 8am local time. Another nuclear scientist, Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, and his wife, survived an identical simultaneous attack.

Details of the mens’ backgrounds remain sketchy. But the motivation for the killings may be linked to Iran’s nuclear programme: experts are convinced that the country’s uranium enrichment facilities are intended give the country the capacity to build nuclear weapons. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – who clung onto a second term as president, after the disputed June 2009 election – immediately laid blame with the West and Israel. “The western governments and the Zionist regime have a hand in the assassination of the two Iranian university professors,” he asserted at a press conference in Tehran hours after the attacks. “They will not be able to stop the Iranian nation’s activities by such acts,” he added.

Shahriari has published several papers on nuclear reactor physics and nuclear medicine applications in international peer reviewed journals, including Elsevier’s Annals of Nuclear Energy. Abbasi-Davani’s handful of publications on neutron physics seem mainly to be in Iranian journals. Abbasi-Davani, who sources say is a ministry of defence scientist and a longstanding member of Iran’s revolutionary guards, is a well known figure in Iran’s nuclear programme. He was named as being among “Persons involved in nuclear or ballistic missile activities” in the 2007 UN Security Council resolution 1747 which imposed sanctions on Iran over its refusal to stop enrichment of uranium. It is not yet clear whether Shahriari had any links to the programme or not.

Shahriari was, however, part of the Iranian delegation on the board of a ‘science for peace’ project, the non-nuclear SESAME (Synchrotronlight for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East) synchrotron facility, in Alaan, Jordan. He is the second participant of the SESAME council to be assassinated. Last January, Masoud Alimohammadi, a particle physicist at the University of Tehran, was killed by a bomb as he got into his car to go to work (see my article on this here).

The facility, which opened in 2008 and is the Middle East’s first synchrotron, is intended to promote peace through scientific cooperation in the region. SESAME board president Christopher Llewellyn-Smith says, however, that he has little recollection of Shahriari, and that records show he only attended one meeting, at the opening of the SESAME building.

Alimohammadi had opposed the regime’s crackdown on the protests that followed the 2009 presidential election, and his research on theoretical particle physics was far removed from nuclear matters, leading researchers to speculate that he had been assassinated by hardliners in the Ahmadinejad regime. By contrast, today’s attacks bears all the hallmarks of a hit by foreign powers, says one Iranian expatriate researcher.

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