Iran's nuclear scientists: casualties of covert war?

Iran's nuclear scientists: casualties of covert war?
Iran suspects Israel has killed four of its nuclear scientists in recent years. The deaths have led to calls for protection for scientists in any nuclear deal with the West.
4 min read
20 May, 2015
The car Iranian nuclear scientist Ahmadi Roshan was assassinated in [Getty]

Shohreh Pirani still remembers the afternoon of 23 July 2011. She was in a car with her daughter and husband, Darioush Rezaeinejad, an electrical engineer who was working on Iran's nuclear programme. 

She remembers hearing the gunshots that killed her husband. Neither she nor any of the other witnesses could identity the attackers, who were wearing motorbike helmets and fled on bikes. However, she accuses Mossad, the Israeli intelligence, of being behind the attack.

"The year Darioush became part of Iran's nuclear research team he received many anonymous calls and threats," said Pirani, adding that he also received many attractive offers from western research centres which he declined.

     Iran has officially blamed Israel for the murders as part of its stragegy of sabotaging Iran's nuclear programme.

Pirani is not convinced the comprehensive agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme expected to be announced in early July will end the threat posed to Iranian nuclear scientists.

"The West always protects Israeli interests," Pirani said, calling for any nuclear deal to include protection of the identity of Iranian nuclear scientists. 

Dangerous job

Rezaeinejad, who held a PhD in electrical engineering from KN Toosi university of technology in Tehran, is one of four Iranian scientists who have been killed in five years.

Iran has officially blamed Israel, saying the targeted killings were part of Israel's strategy of sabotaging its nuclear programme. Israel has never officially commented.

Masoud Alimohammadi, a particle physicist and university professor, died in 2010 when a booby-trapped motorbike exploded outside his house as he went to work.

Iranian authorities arrested a man named Majid Jamali, whose recorded confession was broadcast on Iranian television after his execution, according to Human Rights Watch. Jamali said in his confession that he had been hired by Mossad to carry out the attack.

While Human Rights Watch found no evidence to suggest Jamali was tortured while being held in custody, it said there was evidence that he had been denied a fair trail and that his televised confession was in itself degrading.

Majid Shahriari, a nuclear engineer and manager of Iran's nuclear programme was killed in a bomb attack in November 2010. The then-president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, accused the West and Israel of being behind his death.

Fereydoon Abbasi, the former head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation, was targeted by a bomb at the same time as Shahriari, but survived.

Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan, a supervisor at Natanz, was the most recent Iranian nuclear scientist to have been killed when unknown assailants attached a magnetic bomb to his car in January 2012. 

On the day of his death, Israel's military spokesman, Yoav Mordechai, said he did not know who "settled the score", but that he was "not shedding a tear".

Suspected killers

Ahmadi-Roshan's name was included on a UN Security Council sanctions list and he had met inspectors from the IAEA) according to Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation, which made the IAEA a suspect in his death.

Hussein Kanani Moghadam, an Iranian MP and a former commander in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, told al-Araby al-Jadeed: "Assassinations are a clear and well known Israeli policy towards Tehran. Mossad gets its information from western intelligence agencies that have access to information about Iran's nuclear programme - information that is supposed to be secret."

     Iranian accusations that Israel has been killing its scientists has caused an ongoing covert war between the two countries.

Moghadam said Iran should not trust western powers and that the nuclear agreement would not reduce the threat against Iranian scientists. It might, in fact, increase the threat due to the additional pressure Israel will feel under because of the deal.

"The negotiating team should obtain western assurances that guarantee the safety of Iranian scientists and the secrecy of Iran's nuclear activities," said Moghadam. He said any assassination after the deal would make the US an accessory to Israel's crime.

Iranian accusations that Israel has been killing its scientists has caused an ongoing covert war between the two countries.

Iranian TV broadcast a documentary about the dangers faced by its nuclear scientists that included an alleged CIA operative, Matti Waluk, confessing to gathering information about Iranian scientists for the CIA.

Foreign Policy magazine also reported that Mossad had recruited members of the Jundullah movement, a Sunni militant group based on Iran's southeastern border with Pakistan, to assist in attacks on Iranian scientists.

Iran has imposed strict security measures on its nuclear scientists, who are not allowed to identify themselves and can only appear with their faces covered in video of its nuclear facilities. These measures did not exist five years ago.