Iranian Nuclear Scientists Attacked: Did U.S., Israel Plan Assassination?

The attack on two of Iran’s leading nuclear physicists is likely the work of a joint American and Israeli covert program to sabotage Iran's nuclear program, argues Reza Aslan.

This photo released is claimed to show one of the damaged cars following bomb attacks on the vehicles of two nuclear scientists in Tehran, Iran on Nov. 29, 2010. (Photo: Far News Agency / AP Photo)

A group of masked assassins on motorcycles pulls up to an idling car. Inside the car is a nuclear scientist and his wife.

One of the assassins reaches out and attaches a magnetic bomb to the side of the car.

BOOM! The bomb explodes, killing the scientist and wounding his wife.

A plume of black smoke rises to the sky as the masked assassins speed away.

No, this is not a sneak peak at the script to the latest Bond movie. This incredible series of events actually happened on Monday. Twice.

Dr. Majid Shahriari, one of Iran's top nuclear scientists, and his colleague at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, Dr. Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, were separately but simultaneously attacked by unidentified assassins riding motorcycles. The assailants attached bombs to each man's car and then sped off as the bombs detonated. Dr. Shahriari was killed. Dr. Abbasi-Dayani and his wife, as well as Dr. Shahriari's wife, were all badly injured.

Shahriari was a member of Iran's Atomic Energy Agency and by all accounts an integral part of the country's nuclear program. Indeed, Shahriari's particular expertise, neutron transport, plays a vital role in weaponizing enriched uranium. Dr. Abbasi-Davani, an expert in lasers and reportedly a high ranking official in the Ministry of Defense, is also deeply involved in Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile activities—so deeply, in fact, that he is mentioned by name in U.N. Resolution 1737, which imposed severe sanctions on Iran for its continuing nuclear program.

In other words, these are not your run-of-the-mill, mid-level nuclear physicists. These two men are key figures in what most of the international community believes is Iran's drive to build nuclear weapons. And they were very likely attacked, brazenly and in broad daylight, as part of a joint American and Israeli covert program to sabotage Iran's nuclear program. (The rumors that the two scientists—one of whom is a Revolutionary Guard member—may have been targeted by the Iranian government itself because of their political views seems to have no basis in reality).

We may be entering a new and extremely dangerous phase in the nuclear standoff with Iran—one that could quickly get out of hand.

Earlier this year, I wrote about a clandestine CIA program to delay or perhaps even derail Iran's nuclear ambitions by convincing high-level Iranian nuclear scientists to defect to the United States. The program, called Brain Drain and put in place by the Bush administration as early as 2005, came under intense scrutiny after the botched defection of a 30-year-old junior staff member of Iran’s Atomic Agency named Shahram Amiri, who was picked up by U.S. intelligence agents in Saudi Arabia last summer but who later asked to be returned to Iran.

Part of the CIA's clandestine efforts apparently include selling faulty nuclear components to Iran, some of which have been booby-trapped to explode and destroy the machinery altogether. There have been scattered reports of explosions at various enrichment facilities, including one that destroyed 50 centrifuges at Iran’s Natanz plant. And, just recently, we learned of the so-called Stuxnet computer virus, which seems to have been developed (likely by the U.S. and/or Israel) specifically to target Iran's centrifuges. The virus reportedly shut down thousands of centrifuges at Iran's controversial Natanz enrichment facility.

I reported then about the possibility that these covert activities, which seem to have been successful in slowing Iran's nuclear program, may also include targeted assassinations of high-level nuclear scientists and members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard. In 2007, the intelligence website STRATFOR claimed that Mossad agents had used "radioactive poison" to kill a nuclear physicist named Ardashir Hosseinpour who was suspected of being involved in Iran's secret nuclear program. Another Iranian nuclear scientist, Massoud Ali-Mohammadi, was also mysteriously assassinated by a car bomb in January 2010. Add to this a number of high-profile "disappearances," like that of a former defense minister and general in the Revolutionary Guard, Ali-Reza Asgari, who vanished while on a trip to Turkey, and a distinct pattern starts to emerge.

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Reva Bhalla, a senior analyst at STRATFOR, puts it plainly. “With cooperation from the United States, Israeli covert operations have focused both on eliminating key human assets involved in the nuclear program and in sabotaging the Iranian nuclear supply chain.”

If that is true and Monday's assassination attempt of Iranian nationals signals a shift in U.S. or Israeli strategy toward Iran (perhaps emboldened by what the recent WikiLeaks dump shows is growing Arab government support for a harder line toward Iran's nuclear program), then we may be entering a new and extremely dangerous phase in the nuclear standoff with Iran—one that could quickly get out of hand. The head of Iran’s nuclear program, Ali Akbar Salehi, sounded a dire warning to the U.S. and Israel. “Don’t play with fire,” he said. “The patience of the Iranian people has its limits. If our patience runs out, you will suffer the consequences.”

Seyed Mohammad Hassan Abu-Torabi-Fard, the vice speaker of the Iranian parliament, was fairly blunt in threatening that such moves will only increase Iran's desire for nuclear weapons. "The more crimes Israel and the United States commit, the higher the speed of Iran's scientific move will be.”

So far there has been no response from either U.S. or Israeli intelligence to Iran's accusations. The silence speaks louder than any words.

Reza Aslan is author of the international bestseller No god but God and Beyond Fundamentalism. His new book Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East came out in November. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.