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A War in the Shadows: The Record of Iranian Nuclear Scientists Killed Over the Decade

© AP Photo / Vahid Salemi In this 31 March 2020, file photo, Iran's national flag flutters in the wind with Milad telecommunications tower and buildings in Tehran, Iran, seen in the background.
 In this 31 March 2020, file photo, Iran's national flag flutters in the wind with Milad telecommunications tower and buildings in Tehran, Iran, seen in the background. - Sputnik International
The killing of a leading Iranian nuclear scientist has caused outrage in the Middle East, and threatened to up-end an already precarious geopolitical situation between Iran on one hand, and the US and Israel on the other.

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, described by the West and Israel as the leader of Iran’s alleged covert nuclear bomb programme, was killed in an apparent assassination on 27 November.

Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, tweeted that, “terrorists murdered an eminent Iranian scientist today. This cowardice - with serious indications of Israeli involvement - shows the desperate war-mongering of the perpetrators.” An American official has claimed that Israeli fingerprints were all over the attack. 

Israel has said it refuses to comment publicly on such reports.

However, Mr Fakhrizadeh is not the first Iranian nuclear scientist to have been assassinated over the past 10 years whose death the Iranian authorities have been blamed on western-backed Israeli operations.

Despite persistent denials by the American government that it has any knowledge about how the leading Iranian nuclear scientists came to be assassinated, David E Sanger, a former National Security correspondent with the New York Times, wrote in his book - which partly covers the issue - that, “for years, the Mossad and the CIA have tracked” a number of Iranian university scientists.

Here is a list of the top assassinations over the years.

Masoud Ali-Mohammadi

On the morning of 12 January 2010, nuclear scientist Masoud Ali-Mohammadi - said to be a particle physics professor at Tehran University - was killed when a “remote-controlled bomb attached to a motorcycle” exploded outside his home in the Iranian capital as he left to go to work. Iranian officials said at the time that the professor did not work for the country’s Atomic Energy Organisation. Western and Israeli intelligence sources on the other hand, claimed he had worked closely with the recently killed Mr Fakhrizadeh. Again, much like his death, Iranian leaders blamed the attacks on Israeli intelligence services, with support from Washington. Iranian authorities later announced they had arrested an Iranian national, Majid Jamali Fashi, who alleged in a televised confession that he had been paid $120,000 to act on behalf of Israel's secret service, Mossad.

Majid Shahriari and Fereydoun Abassi-Davani

In November 2010 two scientists who allegedly held chief roles in the Iranian nuclear programme were struck almost simultaneously by bombs in Tehran.

In one of incidents, Majid Shahriari and his wife were severely wounded in a car bombing on 29 November in what Iranian officials blasted as an Israeli attack on its atomic efforts. Shahriari died of his wounds almost immediately. His wife survived, but is said now to have a scar on one cheek and walks using a cane. Later on, the country’s atomic energy head, Ali Akbar Salehi, noted that Shahriari had held a prominent role in one of Iran’s biggest nuclear programmes, but he did not provide details on what that role was, nor the specific nature of the programme.

Fereydoun Abassi-Davani, was severely wounded, also in a car-bomb attack in which his wife sustained injuries, on the same day that the other attack had been carried out. Abassi-Davani was head of Physics at Tehran's Imam Hussein University, and was subject to stringent UN sanctions over what western officials claimed was his involvement in the military dimension of Iran’s nuclear programme. Much like the other attacks, Iranian officials were quick to blame overseas intelligence agencies as the perpetrators. However, then-Iranian intelligence minister, Heydar Moslehi, said that it was a number of Iran’s enemies working together: “This terrorist act was carried out by intelligence services such as the CIA, Mossad and the MI6. A group that wanted to carry out a terrorist act but did not succeed, was also arrested. They confessed that they were trained by these intelligence services.” Despite his dance with death, Abassi-Davani survived, and went on to lead the country’s Atomic Energy Agency from 2011-2013.

Darioush Rezaeinejad

Somewhat more shrouded in uncertainty than the above cases, on 23 July, 2011, Darioush Rezaeinejad, who had a PhD in Physics, was gunned down outside his home in an eastern suburb of Tehran reportedly by assassins on motorbikes. Rezaeinejad was allegedly with his wife after they had collected their children from school. Some reports at the time said that he had been working on the “trigger mechanism” used for nuclear weapons. The Iranian government denied that he had anything to do with its nuclear programme. However, it was widely reported at the time that he had been killed by agents from Israel's Mossad. Supporting those claims, the German newspaper, Der Spiegel, quoted at the time an Israeli intelligence source claiming that the attack, “was the first public operation by new Mossad chief Tamir Pardo.” 

Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan

In January 2012, a 32-year-old chemical engineering graduate and nuclear scientist at Iran’s renowned Natanz facility named Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan had a so-called sticky bomb placed on his car by a motorcyclist while in central Tehran. The subsequent blast killed Ahmadi-Roshan and also a passenger in his car, as well as wounding a bystander. Soon after, then-US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, took the unusual step of distancing the US from the attack. “I want to categorically deny any United States involvement in any kind of violence inside Iran,” she announced. In his writings, journalist David Sanger claims that around the time of the attack, he was told by US officials that Washington, though cautious about providing any information to Israel about Iranian nuclear scientists that may implicate the US, “Israel hardly needed the help.” Indeed, Time Magazine at the time claimed that it had been told by unnamed Western intelligence sources that, as with the above-mentioned cases, Mr Ahmadi-Roshan was “a victim of Israel’s Mossad.” 

January 2015

In January of 2015, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps claimed that it had thwarted an assassination of one of the country’s nuclear scientists. An official from the guard told the Iranian Fars news agency that it had prevented an attack on an unarmed individual at an unspecified time over the prior two years. “The Zionist enemy [Israel] took action to assassinate a nuclear scientist during the past two years, but the timely presence of IRGC security men thwarted this operation,” an official identified only as Colonel Baqeri was quoted by PressTV. 

January 2007

Nuclear scientist Ardeshir Hosseinpour was killed in 2007 under suspicious circumstances. He was initially said to have died from “gas poisoning from a faulty heater”. However, in a February 2007 report, American private intelligence company Stratfor claimed, based “on sources very close to Israeli intelligence”, that he was “in fact a long-time Mossad target". The report claimed that Hosseinpour was killed by “radioactive positioning” as part of Israel’s “secret operations” to stop Iran developing nuclear weapon capabilities. 

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