Iranian press has reported that a chemical engineer, who is allegedly an official at the country’s Natantz uranium-enrichment facility, was assassinated this morning in the north of Tehran. Two men on a motorcycle are reported to have attached a magnetic bomb to his car.
Almost all international media reports have described the man as a “nuclear scientist”, but so far his expertise and affiliation remain unclear. Iran’s Fars news agency named the man as Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan Behdast, aged 32, and reported that he was “a professor at Tehran’s technical university” and “a graduate of oil industry university and a deputy director of Natanz uranium enrichment facility for commercial affairs”. Iran’s Press TV described the man as “Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan… who was a chemical engineering graduate of Iran’s prominent Sharif University of Technology and served as marketing deputy of Iran’s Natanz nuclear installation”. Mehr news agency gave a similar description.
A statement on Sharif University’s Persian website (translated using Google Translate) confirmed that the victim, whom they name as Mostafa Ahmadi, graduated in chemical engineering from the university, and that as a student had done research on polymeric membranes to separate gases. But it is not yet clear whether he held an academic position or whether his work might have been relevant to any aspects of Iran’s nuclear programme.
Some caution is warranted. On 23 July last year, Dariush Rezaei-Nejad, initially described by Iranian authorities and media as a nuclear scientist — who was shot by armed men on motorcycles — turned out in fact to be an electrical engineering student pursuing a masters degree at Khajeh Nasireddin Toosi University in Tehran (see Assassination of Iranian scientist sparks rumours, but few answers)
The killing is the latest in a string of mysterious assassinations, whose motives have not always been clear. Two years ago this month, Masoud Alimohammadi, a particle physicist at the University of Tehran, was killed by a bomb as he was leaving his home (see Iranian academics fear more killings). Alimohammadi was one of Iran’s two official representatives on the board of the Middle East’s first synchrotron facility, SESAME (Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East), in Alaan, Jordan (see Physicist was part of ‘science for peace’ project). His colleagues were shocked at his killings, and said that they doubted that he had any link to Iran’s nuclear programme. At the time, Moshe Paz-Pasternak, a physicist at Tel Aviv University in Israel who worked with Alimohammadi on the Middle East synchrotron, said, “I can see no reason why or how Iran’s military or nuclear programmes could benefit from Alimohammadi’s expertise”.
Iranian scientists also hotly contested claims by the regime that the scientist was a “martyr” and a “committed revolutionary professor.” Quite the opposite, they said; he was one of hundreds of academics who signed a petition endorsing Mir Hossein Mousavi, the reformist presidential candidate, in the June 2008 elections. He also supported the anti-regime protests that were sparked by the suspected rigging of that election to ensure the victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and some scientists speculate that the regime itself may have been behind the assassination.
The motivation for another assassination attempt on 29 November 2010 — which used a similar modus operandi to today’s attack — was far clearer. The target, who survived, was Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, a senior nuclear scientist at the Ministry of Defence and Armed Forces Logistics who went on to become the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. Abbasi-Davani was also named in the 2007 UN Security Council Resolution 1747, which imposed sanctions on Iran over its refusal to stop enrichment of uranium, as being among “persons involved in nuclear or ballistic missile activities”, and as subject to a travel ban and assets freeze. Today’s victim is not on that list.
Majid Shahriari, a physicist at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, was killed on the same day in November 2010, also by attackers on motorcycles who attached bomb to his car (see Iranian nuclear scientists attacked). Shahriari worked on nuclear-reactor physics and nuclear medicine and had published in international peer-reviewed journals, but it was unclear whether he had any link at all to Iran’s programme. He was also a member of the board of SESAME, though this is considered to have had nothing to do with his killing.
Although conclusive links between some of these killings and Iran’s nuclear programme have yet to be substantiated, the frequency of attacks, and the similar methods used in some, leave little doubt that there is a campaign of targeted assassinations. There also appears to be some evidence of a wider effort to sabotage or slow Iran’s progress in getting enough enriched uranium to be able to enrich the material further to the levels needed for a nuclear bomb. As the newspaper Haaretz notes, there has been a spate of recent mysterious incidents, including explosions at facilities, some of which are thought to be linked to Iran’s nuclear programme. And in November 2010, Iran admitted that Stuxnet, a sophisticated computer worm, had targeted the Natanz facility. The worm had been designed to interfere with electronic control equipment, and to damage the centrifuges used for enrichment, potentially causing them to run or brake too quickly.