Iranian Nuclear Scientist Taken Out in Brazen Cloak-and-Dagger Assassination

Posted: Nov 29, 2010 1:32 PM
Although the British press is likening it to a James Bond caper, my American sensibilities compel me to compare the details of this plot to a Bourne film, or a Brad Thor novel:

Assassins on motorbikes killed a top Iranian nuclear scientist and injured a second in James Bond-style hits this morning.

They attached magnetised bombs to their cars which exploded within seconds as they drove to work in Tehran.

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad immediately blamed Israel and other Western governments for the attacks.

Iran's nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi said the man killed, Majid Shahriari, was involved in a major project with the country's nuclear agency.

Mr Shahriari's wife, who was in the car with him, was wounded.

The injured scientist, Fereidoun Abbasi, is believed to be a laser expert at Iran's Defence Ministry and one of the country's few top specialists in nuclear isotope separation. His wife was also injured.

Let the whodunit speculation begin:  Was it the CIA?  (Possible, although the US has denied "any link to previous attacks.")  Mossad?  (Israel has issued its customary "no comment" on the matter).  Or might it have been Her Majesty's MI-6 after all?   Iranian officials and media have settled on Door Number Two, unsurprisingly, and are leveling bellicose warnings against testing the "patience" of the Islamic regime:

Iran's nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, said Dr Shahriari was involved in a major project at the country's chief nuclear agency, though he did not give specifics.

State television swiftly blamed Israel for the attacks.

"Don't play with fire. The patience of the Iranian nation has limits. If it runs out of patience, bad consequences will await enemies," the official news agency IRNA quoted Mr Salehi as saying as he met Dr Abbasi at his hospital bedside.

Paranoia and frustration must be mounting in Tehran, as top scientists are dropping dead and nuclear reactors are malfunctioning.  On the second point, the world has recently learned of Stuxnet, an astonishingly sophisticated and mysterious computer superbug that has temporarily crippled Iran's nuclear program. Just like today's targeted bombings, determining who is responsible for Stuxnet's development and implementation remains a global guessing game.  Experts are whispering about the US, Germany, Russia, China and possibly Israel -- or some combination thereof, but no one (aside from the programmers, of course) knows for sure.

As for the first point, I intentionally used the plural form when I wrote that Iranian scientists are dropping dead.  Dr. Shahriari isn't the first Iranian nuclear physicist to meet an untimely demise in recent years.  Someone's been systematically picking them off:

Today's attacks bore close similarities to another in January that killed Tehran University professor Masoud Ali Mohammadi, a senior physics professor. He was killed when a bomb-rigged motorcycle exploded near his car as he was about to leave for work.

In 2007, state TV reported that nuclear scientist, Ardeshir Hosseinpour, died from gas poisoning.

Let's add one more wrinkle into this already fascinating story.  It might be a mistake to assume that this methodical, anti-Iran sabotage campaign is being carried out by one of the "usual suspects" -- namely, a Western government.  One widely reported Wikileaks disclosure revealed that a number Arab (read: Sunni) governments have privately and "repeatedly" urged the US to take drastic action against Iran's nuclear program:

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has repeatedly urged the United States to attack Iran to destroy its nuclear programme, according to leaked US diplomatic cables that describe how other Arab allies have secretly agitated for military action against Tehran.

The Saudi king was recorded as having "frequently exhorted the US to attack Iran to put an end to its nuclear weapons programme", one cable stated. "He told you [Americans] to cut off the head of the snake," the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Adel al-Jubeir said, according to a report on Abdullah's meeting with the US general David Petraeus in April 2008.

Surely the Saudis, the Jordanians, and others have fairly advanced intelligence agencies capable of pulling off covert ops, right?  Neighboring states are clearly just as spooked by the prospect of a nuclear Iran as anyone else, and may even have greater motivation to take piecemeal measures like targeted assassinations into their own hands. 

In other words, Iran may be publicly fingering Israel and the United States for today's stealth hits, but you'd better believe there's an enormous amount of fear and loathing going on behind closed doors. 

True international intrigue.