Who Killed the Iranian Physics Professors?

In March of 1990, a Canadian ballistics expert by the name of Gerald Bull, who was suspected of being involved in developing Iraq’s missile system, was murdered in Brussels, after being warned by a friend that the Israeli secret police, Mossad, was planning to kill him. To this day we do not know who killed Gerald Bull. The same fate might await the resolution of a number of cases in the past few years, where Iranian physics professors and scientists have been attacked and, in some cases, killed.

On November 29, 2010, there were two assassination attempts against Iranian nuclear scientists, Professors Majid Shahriari and Fereydoon Abbasi Davani. The former, Shahriari, did not survive.  Both attacks were carried out by men on motorcycles, as most news media reported. Also, as many media outlets reported, Iran swiftly blamed the CIA and Mossad for the attacks. AFP, on November 30, 2010, quoted President Ahmadinejad as saying: “One can undoubtedly see the hands of Israel and Western governments in the assassination which unfortunately took place. . .  .  the Zionist regime this time shed the blood of university professor Dr. Majid Shahriari to curb Iran’s progress.” Israel’s foreign ministry “declined to comment,” AFP reported.

The name of the surviving scientist, Abbasi Davani, appeared among the “Persons involved in nuclear or ballistic missile activities” in the 2007 UN Resolution 1747 against Iran. Actually, his name was the first on the list and he was identified as the “scientist with links to the Institute of Applied Physics, working closely with Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi.” The second name on the list, Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi, was identified as the senior scientist and former head of the Physics Research Centre (PHRC). “The IAEA,” the resolution read, “have asked to interview him about the activities of the PHRC over the period he was head but Iran has refused.”

After the November attacks, the Israeli media made similar speculation as to who was behind the attack. For example, on November 30, 2010, Yossi Melman, a senior commentator for Haaretz, stated in an article in The Independent: “No organisation claimed responsibility but it is obvious, not just because of accusations by Iranian officials and Iran’s media, that Israel was behind it. Most experts who follow Middle East politics and Mossad history would agree.” Melman speculated that these attacks are “part of the endless efforts by the Israeli intelligence community, together with its Western counterparts including Britain’s MI6 and America’s CIA, to sabotage, delay and if possible, to stop Iran from reaching its goal of having its first nuclear bomb.”

As Melman noted, the attacks were “at least the fourth attempt to assassinate Iranian scientists linked with the country’s nuclear programme in four years” and “there were probably other attempts which did not hit the headlines.”  “The attribution to Mossad,” according to Melman, “is not because of the use of motorcycles, though in the past Mossad has been involved in similar operations.” “It has more to do,” Melman went on to say, “with the policy of Mossad to deal a blow to Iran’s nuclear programme. On top of assassinating nuclear scientists to terrorise others and force some to quit, it is believed that Mossad was also behind penetrating Iranian purchasing networks and selling them flawed equipment of its nuclear enrichment centrifuges and most recently by planting a virus which has damaged the nuclear computers at Natanz.”

Similar speculation about who was behind the sabotage and assassinations in Iran appeared elsewhere. For instance, on November 30, 2010, The Jerusalem Post referred to a report in the French newspaper Le Canard encha?n? and stated that according to the “French intelligence sources,” acts of sabotage and assassinations that were “carried out in the past year in Iran were conducted by Israel with the help of the CIA and MI6.” The sabotage, the report went on to say, included “the introduction of the Stuxnet computer virus into 30,000 computers in Iran’s nuclear reactors and explosions in October in which 18 Iranian technicians were killed at a factory in the Zagros mountains that manufactured Shihab missiles.” The assassinations, according to the report, were conducted by “Mossad in cooperation with the American and British intelligence agencies.”

There were also rumors in some Iranian news media, as well as some foreign news sources, that the US designated terrorist organization Mujahedeen Khalq-e Iran or MEK [MKO, National Council of Resistance, and various other names used by the organization] was also behind the assassinations. For example, Iranian Students News Agency stated on December 1, 2010, that the “monafeghin,” a code name for MEK, had admitted that they had “played a role” in the attack.  In this report they referred to some MEK documents that appeared on the website of “Habilian Center,” a group that claims to be a non-governmental organization fighting terrorism in Iran.

On December 1, 2010, AP also reported that according to Iran’s defense minister, Israel had enlisted members of MEK to carry out such attacks. Indeed, on November 30, 2010, Fars News Agency quoted Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi as saying: “This inauspicious act was sponsored by the Zionist regime and in coordination with the western intelligence agencies, the US and Britain in particular, and was carried out by MKO [MEK] hirelings.”

Confirming all such news, particularly the role that MEK might have played in the attack, is difficult. However, as I mentioned in my 2008 book, The United States and Iran: Sanctions, Wars and the Policy of Dual Containment, as well as a forthcoming book, MEK has worked closely with the Israelis in the past, often acting as a conduit for them. Indeed, the most important and the only correct piece of information that this organization has ever made public?namely, the August 14, 2002 announcement that Iran has been building two nuclear facilities?was supplied to them by the Israelis, as I have argued in my book. The organization has also posted on the web, on a number of occasions, the names and addresses of some university professors or nuclear scientists in Iran, including Drs. Fereydoon Abbasi Davani and Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi.  For instance, on November 19, 2004, the website “Iran Focus” posted a piece under “Verbatim: Opposition cites new intelligence on Iranian laser enrichment.” The piece referred to the “text of a press conference” held in Paris by Mohammad Mohaddessin, the “chairman of the NCRI [National Council of Resistance] of Iran Foreign Affairs Committee.” In his talk, Mohaddessin accused Iran of “using advanced laser technology to secretly enrich uranium and of lying to the United Nations nuclear watchdog body about the covert program.” Like many other such claims by MEK, this assertion was false. But in his press conference Mohaddessin referred to the Center for the Development of Defense Technology and stated:

The center is run under the supervision of Dr. Fereydoon Abbasi, a Ministry of Defense laser specialist and one of the few experts in separation of isotopes.  He is also in charge of the nuclear training and research at the Ministry of Defense. Dr. Abbasi plays a key role in the Ministry of Defense’s elaborate concealment program to keep the regime’s nuclear activities secret and deceive IAEA inspectors.

He concluded his talk by listing the names of “laser experts” working for the Iranian Department of Defense. The names included Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi and other colleagues of Professor Abbasi Davani.

It is interesting to note that in fall 2010 and winter 2011, and even throughout the period when MEK’s name was in the news for a possible link to the attack on the Iranian nuclear scientists, there was a feverish campaign in the US to remove the MEK from the US list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. On November 16, 2010, six Members of Congress signed such a letter addressed to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The letter, signed by Representatives Bob Filner, Dana Rohrabacher, Ted Poe, Judy Chu, Ed Towns and Mike Coffman, highlighted  House resolution 1431, introduced by Bob Filner, which called for the MEK’s removal from the US list of terrorist organizations. On December 17, 2010, AP reported that in a symposium in Washington several “Bush-era officials” have “urged the Obama administration to strike an Iranian opposition group [MEK] from a terrorism blacklist and support regime change in Iran.” The officials listed were Tom Ridge, John Bolton, Frances Townsend and Michael Mukasey.  Mukasey, the former attorney general under Bush, was quoted as saying: “We should take off the list of terrorist organizations the one group [MEK] that is devoted to restoring freedom in Iran.”

The Christian Science Monitor, which also reported the same event, quoted Mukasey as saying that the “the regime in Tehran” is at the “center” of an “Islamism that threatens civilization as we know it” (December 19, 2010). On December 23, 2010, The Washington Post reported that at a rally in Paris organized by the “French Committee for a Democratic Iran, a pressure group formed to support MEK,” former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former secretary of homeland security Tom Ridge, former White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend and former attorney general Michael Mukasey “demanded that Obama instead take the controversial Mujaheddin-e Khalq (MEK) opposition group off the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations and incorporate it into efforts to overturn the mullah-led government in Tehran.”  “The United States should not just be on your side,” Giuliani was quoted as saying, it “should be enthusiastically on your side. You want the same things we want.”

On January 10, 2011, Iran’s Minster of Intelligence, Heidar Moslehi, announced that “more than 10 people” linked to the Mossad were arrested in connection with last year’s killing of a nuclear physicist (AP). The case referred to the assassination of Dr. Masoud Ali Mohammadi, a professor of physics at Tehran University, who was killed by a bomb-rigged motorcycle that exploded outside his house as he was leaving for work in January 2010.  An individual was shown in a video confessing to Professor Ali Mohammadi’s murder after getting training in Israel. Some people in Iran, including the wife of the assassinated professor, were satisfied with the investigation and found the confession credible.  But the opponents of the Iranian government appeared to be skeptical, especially some members of the Green movement who had tried earlier to portray the government as a suspect in the killing, since Ali Mohammadi appeared to be a supporter of the opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi.  Indeed, one of the main organs of the opposition movement interviewed Professor Ali Mohammadi’s wife and, without much success, tried to shake her confidence in the confession. The Israeli analysts, too, appeared to be skeptical of the Iranian government’s announcement that those responsible for the assassination have been captured.

Also skeptical that the murder case of Professor Ali Mohammadi has been solved were the Sherlock Holmeses of this world, who have followed closely this and similar cases in the past.  They still remember the unresolved case of Gerald Bull’s murder more than two decades ago.

SASAN FAYAZMANESH is Professor Emeritus of Economics at California State University, Fresno. He is the author of The United States and Iran: Sanctions, Wars and the Policy of Dual Containment (Routledge, available in paperback in February 2011).  He can be reached at: sasan.fayazmanesh@gmail.com.


Sasan Fayazmanesh is Professor Emeritus of Economics at California State University, Fresno, and is the author of Containing Iran: Obama’s Policy of “Tough Diplomacy.” He can be reached at: sasan.fayazmanesh@gmail.com.