In the last two years, lethal attacks have been conducted on Iran’s nuclear scientists with increasing regularity. A pattern is emerging – assassinations and attempted assassinations are gathering pace as tensions between Iran and its opponents, primarily the US and Israel, spike. These are not good days to be part of the country’s nuclear weapons program. Mortality rates are on the rise.
The latest attack is yet another one in a string of targets liquidated with the purpose, presumably, of halting the Iranian nuclear program. On Wednesday it was Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, deputy director at Iran’s uranium enrichment plant at Natanz and apparently an expert in gas separation technology. The Iranian authorities are pointing the figure with firm conviction at Mossad.
The trail is a destructive one, and is starting to become long. Five Iranian nuclear scientists have been targeted over a two year period. Four have perished. In November 2010, Majid Shahriari was killed. Fereidoon Abbasi Davani, Iran’s current atomic chief, managed to survive two attacks. The particle physicist Masoud Ali-Mohammadi also entered the expanding mausoleum of Iranian nuclear experts, suffering his demise in 2010.
The general formula, with variations, is tedious but effective – the killers have found a workable blue print and rarely seem to deviate from it. This involves murder in broad daylight, usually accomplished on a motorcycle, often directed at a Peugeot 405, the standard issue vehicle for officials connected with Iran’s nuclear program. A ‘sticky bomb’ is attached magnetically to the door as close to the designated target and duly activated, killing the individual in question while sparing the other members in the vehicle.
The authorities have also done their bit to develop a narrative in response to the murders. In 2010, Majid Jamali-Fashi was accused by prosecutors of having carried out an act ‘sponsored and designed by Israel’ that involved killing Ali-Mohammadi. As the prosecutor in that case, Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi claimed, ‘The defendant had travelled to Israel to receive training from Mossad and had agreed to assassinate Dr. Ali-Mohammadi in return for $120,000’ (Guardian, Aug 23, 2011).
It is true that, in the murky world of Iranian politics, enemies and sympathizers are hard to detect. Show trials are the staple theatre directed in order to justify and exculpate the state’s actions. The death of the regime’s opponent can always be engineered to appear like an externally directed plot, something the Iranian security services are more than capable of.
Some individuals are also killed mistakenly, something that might well have happened when the academic Darioush Rezaeinejad was gunned down by gunmen on motorcycles outside his daughter’s kindergarten. (The intended target may well have been the nuclear scientist Darioush Rezaei.) Iranian authorities, initially outraged, calmed down with astonishing speed. ‘The assassinated student,’ claimed the intelligence minister Heidar Moleshi, ‘was not involved in nuclear projects and had no connection to the nuclear issue’ (ABC News, Jul 26, 2011).
In such a country, there is a permanent state of enforced charlatanism. Internal killings may also be taking place to silence opponents, though this might be regarded as an extreme form of political censorship. Ali-Mohammadi was said to be connected in terms of support to the opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, which did not endear him to Tehran. Some wondered whether he was even a nuclear scientist to begin with.
But the case against Israel looks pretty clear. It certainly matches the overall targeting that is being undertaken against Iran’s efforts, be it the more modest diplomatic efforts, to the more direct targeting in the form of the Stuxnet computer worm that did its worst in July 2010. This was a particularly effective deployment, resulting in the destruction of the uranium-enriching centrifuges at Natanz that might well have delayed the nuclear program by twelve months.
What now matters is the political reaction of the Iranian regime. For one thing, these measures do nothing to prevent Tehran from eventually acquiring a nuclear capability – it has commenced building a second uranium enrichment facility at Fordow, a far more secure structure given its location deep underground. The country is, however, enduring crippling sanctions at the hands of the EU and the United States. Its response has been to threaten the sealing of the Strait of Hormuz.