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Assassination of Iranian scientist sparks rumours, but few answers

A man assassinated in Tehran on Saturday 23 July appears not to have been a nuclear scientist, as initially claimed by some Iranian officials and media. The latest information suggests that Dariush Rezaei-Nejad was an electrical engineering student pursuing a masters degree at Khajeh Nasireddin Toosi University (KNTU) in Tehran.

Rezaei-Nejad was shot in his car Saturday by armed men on motorcycles as he and his wife were picking up their daughter at a nursery. His wife was injured, reportedly seriously. Video footage showed the man slumped across the passenger seat covered in blood from a head or neck wound.

Initially, some lawmakers and state media had claimed that the man was killed because he was a nuclear scientist with links to the country’s nuclear programme – which many consider a front for developing nuclear weapons. Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Iranian parliament, along with other lawmakers, alleged that the killing was the work of United States and Israel.

The media have since switched away from the claim that he was a nuclear scientist, and as the Guardian and other outlets report, Heydar Moslehi, the Minister of Intelligence, said today that Rezaei-Nejad was an electrical engineering masters student at KNTU. Moslehi added that there was not a “sign which could demonstrate that the attack had been carried out by foreign services”. “We are investigating what has happened, we haven’t found anything and there are yet some dark and vague issues surrounding the assassination,” he added.

“An unambiguous picture of what has happened and who was assassinated is not clear yet,” says Muhammad Sahimi, a materials scientist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Sahimi, who also writes a column analyzing developments in Iran for the the US Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), yesterday posted a round-up of Iranian press coverage over the weekend, and details the conflicting reports surrounding the killing (see ‘Iranian Scientist Assassinated in Tehran; Nature of His Work Unclear’).

“In my view, the confusion may be deliberate, as the Ministry of Intelligence may not be willing to admit that another Iranian scientist has been assassinated and there is nothing that the ministry could do. It may also be that the confusion is deliberate in order to hide the nature of what the murdered person was doing,” speculates Sahimi. “Another possibility is that this was a case of a mistaken identity and the assassinated person was not really the person that was supposed to be killed by whoever planned this.” But another Iranian scientist, who spoke to Nature on condition of anonymity, speculates that it may be just as likely that the regime assassinated him. For the moment, the motivation remains unclear.

The news follows the assassination of Majid Shahriari, a physicist in November 2010, who was on his way to work at the Shahid Beheshti University when motorcyclists attached a bomb to his car. Another nuclear scientist, Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, and his wife, survived an identical simultaneous attack at the same time. Abbasi-Davani is a key figure in Iran’s nuclear programme, and is now head of its Atomic Energy Organization. It was not clear if Shahriari had any link to the nuclear programme (see ‘Iranian nuclear scientists attacked’).

In January that year, Masoud Alimohammadi, a particle physicist at the University of Tehran, was killed in a similar attack. Scientists said Alimohammadi had no links to the nuclear programmes and contested the regime’s presentation of him as a loyalist. Some speculate that hardliners in the regime itself might have staged the killing as a warning to opposition supporters; Alimohammadi had taken part in protests against the regime (see “”http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100118/full/463279a.html">’Iranian academics fear more killings’).

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