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Iran scientist slain in bombing outside his home

Tehran blames the West and Israel, saying the attack was a bid to slow Iran's nuclear program. Colleagues say he was a government critic and that hard-liners killed him to silence the opposition.

January 13, 2010|By Borzou Daragahi and Ramin Mostaghim

Reporting from Tehran and Beirut — A powerful bomb blast killed an Iranian scientist outside his north Tehran home Tuesday, a mystery-shrouded assassination that quickly triggered a round of highly charged accusations with potentially serious political repercussions.

Iran's hard-line Islamic government blamed the U.S., Israel and other Western interests for the death of Massoud Ali-Mohammadi, 50, saying the Tehran University physicist was killed as part of an effort to slow the nation's burgeoning nuclear research program.

Reformist websites and acquaintances, on the other hand, accused hard-liners of killing Ali-Mohammadi as a means of spreading fear on restive campuses that have become hotbeds of anti-government activity.

The charges and countercharges cast a sharp focus on Iran's domestic and international travails and are likely to add to the nation's volatile political atmosphere.

Iranian news outlets close to the hard-liners rushed to paint the scholar as a supporter of the government, which has forged ahead with nuclear development despite heightened international scrutiny amid allegations that Tehran is seeking to build nuclear weapons.

State television described Ali-Mohammadi as a "revolutionary university professor martyred in a terrorist operation by counterrevolutionary agents affiliated" with the West and Israel.

"I assume that this plot is the beginning of an onslaught against the country's scientific capabilities," Mohammed Javad Larijani, head of Iran's Institute for Studies in Theoretical Physics and Mathematics, told the Tabnak news website. "This terrorist act revealed the criminal enemy's plans and shows that major plots are being hatched against our country's progress, prosperity, dignity and capability."

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose disputed reelection victory in June was the catalyst for what have been the largest street protests since the Islamic government took power in the 1979 revolution, also blamed the West.

"Kidnapping and assassination are scenarios of a joint conspiracy against the nation of Iran," said Ahmadinejad, according to the hard-line Fars news agency. "On the one hand, the espionage and intelligence agents of the American government kidnap a number of Iranian nationals in third-party countries and transfer them to America, and on the other hand, their treasonous agents inside Iran assassinate an intellectual citizen."

White House spokesman Bill Burton called such allegations "absurd," according to a transcript issued by the Obama administration. Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev declined to comment on the allegations by Iran, which contends that it is developing nuclear technology for civilian purposes only.

Colleagues and students quickly countered the official line, saying that Ali-Mohammadi was an outspoken critic of the Ahmadinejad government. As a theoretical physicist, they said, he had little applied nuclear experience.

"He was not directly involved in nuclear research," fellow scientist Ahmad Shirzad wrote Tuesday on his blog. "Like many of us, he could give his scientific comments and remarks about nuclear research. But we cannot call him a nuclear scientist."

Ali-Mohammadi, colleagues said, was not even employed by Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, which oversees the country's nuclear program.

He did serve, though, as one of two members of the Iranian delegation to the Jordan-based Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East, or SESAME, a United Nations-backed scientific research center building a particle accelerator with applications in molecular and medical science, according to the organization's website. SESAME comprises nine member governments, including Israel.

Shortly after the slaying was disclosed, the Fars news agency said that a small monarchist group, the Iranian Royalist Society, had claimed responsibility on an obscure website, Takavaran-Tondar.tk. But the U.S.-based group quickly disavowed responsibility for the attack on its official website, Tondar.org.

The West and Israel have vowed to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons capability and have been trying to persuade Iranians involved in the nuclear program to defect.

Former Deputy Defense Minister Ali Reza Asgari, who allegedly procured components for Iran's nuclear program, reportedly defected to the West in 2007. And Iran's top diplomat last month accused the United States and Saudi Arabia of kidnapping nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri, who worked for Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, during a summer religious pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.

The possibility that Ali-Mohammadi was killed for political reasons could signal a new level of intrigue and possible repercussions.

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