Alleged Iran Plot Would Be Latest in Clash of Spies and Assassinations

An Iranian plan to kill the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. comes after a wave of mysterious assassinations in Iran targeting suspected nuclear scientists there

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Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili at a press conference in Geneva in front of a picture of Majid Shahriari, a prominent nuclear scientist killed in a bomb attack / Reuters

The indictment last week of two Iranian nationals suspected of planning a bomb attack against a Saudi diplomat, if true, would be just the latest in a number of mysterious assassinations in the ongoing intelligence activities between Iran and the outside world. The Washington plot has prompted the U.S. to announce its intentions to push the International Atomic Energy Agency to publish more explicit data on a possible Iranian nuclear weapons program in a report due out next month. A number of Iranian scientists suspected of being involved in the alleged nuclear weapons program have been killed under unusual circumstances, most recently this summer. Although the current evidence does not suggest that the Washington plot was linked to these assassinations, extrajudicial killings and the work of intelligence services infer their own story about, and are a product of, the current stand-off between Iran, the West, and Iran's rivals in the Middle East.

On 23 July 2011, Darioush Rezaeinejad was shot dead in Tehran, on his way to fetch his daughter from kindergarten, by two masked gunmen on motorcycles. Outside Iran, the most common interpretation was that Rezaienejad had been assassinated because of his work on a suspected covert Iranian nuclear weapons effort. Assassination attempts had been made on researchers connected to Iran's suspected covert nuclear weapons program before, but they had all been physicists. Rezaeinejad was different: he was young, pre-doctoral, and not a physicist.

Rezaienejad's death is part of a murky and difficult series of events that began in 2007. Much of the story is disputed and difficult to substantiate. In January of that year, Ardeshire Hassanpour, the 44-year-old founder of the Nuclear Technology Center of Isfahan, died in mysterious circumstances. According to Iranian media sources, he was killed by carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty heater in his home. U.S. private intelligence company Stratfor received a tip that that Hassanpour had likely been assassinated by Israeli intelligence services because of his work at the uranium hexafluoride production facility at Isfahan. A French web site called Intelligence Online, however, contended that Hassanpour had been assassinated by Iranian security services because he was planning to flee abroad. Neither of these claims has been substantiated.

Three years later, a rash of assassination attempts occurred within the space of one year, in 2010. In January, Massoud Ali-Mohammadi, a physics lecturer at the University of Tehran, was killed when a bomb fastened to a motorcycle exploded outside his house as he left for work. Then, in November, nuclear engineer Majid Shahriari and his colleague Fereydoun Abassi-Davani were driving through Tehran when men on motorcycles attached explosives to the windows of their cars. Shahriari was killed, but Abbasi-Davani survived and was appointed by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the head of Iranian Atomic Energy Commission less than three months later.

This summer, an Iranian court sentenced a young Iranian man to death for the January murder of Ali-Mohammadi. The court alleged that the suspect, Majid Jamali Fashi, had been contracted by Israel's Mossad to kill five more Iranian scientists, but had been stopped before he could complete them. Like Hassanpour, the circumstances of Ali-Mohammadi's death are disputed. Newspapers reported that Ali-Mohammadi had signed a petition supporting opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi and had urged his students to join street demonstrations.

Only Ardeshire Hassanpour is believed to have been targeted for involvement in uranium production and enrichment -- the process that produces fuel for either nuclear reactors or bombs. Based on the information available in open sources, the other four targeted scientists were not directly involved in making nuclear material. Shahriari and Abbasi-Davani conducted research in neutron transport and high-energy neutron sources and co-authored articles for academic journals. This research relates to the initiation of a nuclear chain reaction, used to start the nuclear power process or the explosion of a nuclear bomb. The Institute for Science and International Security has accused Abbasi-Davani, now responsible for heading the entire Iranian nuclear infrastructure, of participating in the Iranian nuclear weaponization program. The group says he was tasked with calculating the amount of nuclear material needed for a weapon. Rezaeinejad had technical expertise that would be useful later on in the production of a nuclear explosive.

Presented by

Charlotte Spencer-Smith, a freelance analyst based in Vienna, Austria, contributed to Obama and the Bomb.

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