Iran's Cloak-And-Dagger Nuclear Scene Claims Victim

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The assassination of physics professor Masoud Ali Mohammadi in Tehran this week is just the latest in a series of mysteries that have swirled around Iran's nuclear activities for years. NPR's Mike Shuster reports.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

More on that story on the assassination of physicist in Tehran. It's just the latest and bloodiest occurrence in a series of mysteries that have swirled around Iran's nuclear activities in recent years. At least two key figures with knowledge of Iran's secret nuclear program have disappeared, thought to be sharing their expertise with Western intelligence agencies.

NPR's Mike Shuster reports on the cloak-and-dagger game in Iran which has become deadly serious.

MIKE SHUSTER: Who killed Masoud Ali Mohammadi? He died on Tuesday when someone triggered a bomb hidden in a motorbike as he was getting into a car parked nearby. Iran's government moved quickly to control the story, blaming the murder on the usual suspects. This is from Press TV, Iran's English-language satellite and Internet channel.

(Soundbite of TV broadcast)

Unidentified Man #1: Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mihman-Parast said based on primary investigations, Washington, Israel and individuals, he called their mercenaries in Iran are behind the assassination.

SHUSTER: Ali Mohammadi was a professor of particle physics and quantum mechanics at Tehran University. And initially, Iran state-controlled media put out the story that he was a staunch supporter of Iran's Islamic government. He must have been targeted by a long-time foe of Iran's Islamic state, Imuja Hadeen Ekulk(ph), according to Mohammad Marandi, a pro-government professor at Tehran University.

Professor MOHAMMED MARANDI (Tehran University): It's widely believed among colleagues that he was assassinated by terrorist organizations, probably the MEK, which is, of course, supported by the United States and it has connections with the Americans and Israelis under a different name. So, for the most part, people here, in fact, everyone who I know, is blaming the United States and Israel for this crime.

SHUSTER: The State Department called that charge absurd. Then it was discovered Ali Mohammadi had no connection to Iran's nuclear program, a spokesman for the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization said. Some who knew him, like this student, say he did not support the government but backed the opposition, the Green Movement.

Unidentified Man #2: We know that the was a theoretical physicist. You know, he had political ideas as well, but we know that he was a critic of the current government. We really hope that the people who've done this will be found and will be punished.

SHUSTER: So, who did kill Masoud Ali Mohammadi? Supporters of the opposition are convinced it was Iran's secret police. The problem with that theory is that although Iran's intelligence agency has not hesitated to kill, this kind of bombing is not their preferred style, says Ahmed Sadri, an Iran analyst at Lake Forest College in Illinois.

Professor AHMED SADRI (Lake Forest College): This doesn't seem to be their way of killing people. It seems to be much more in line with an assassination that is conducted by elements of foreign governments, such as the Israelis. This damages their reputation and creates doubts about their competence in protecting the nation. So, why would they have killed him in this particular way?

SHUSTER: Why indeed. According to some analysts, Iranian agents made the killing look like an Israeli operation to convince the public that Iran is still under attack by its foreign enemies. This in order to shore up support for Iran's hard-line government seriously weakened by the ongoing protests in the streets.

That seemed to be the point that the speaker of the parliament, Ali Larijani, was trying to make a few days ago.

Mr. ALI LARIJANI (Speaker, Iranian Parliament): (Foreign language spoken)

SHUSTER: They spared no effort to obstruct Iran's nuclear program, he said. They talked of negotiations but imposed sanctions. They carried out the wishes of the Zionist regime by playing a new political trick every day.

There's no doubt Iran has been the target of covert operations to disrupt its nuclear program. Three years ago, Ali-Reza Asgari, former Iranian deputy defense minister, disappeared while in Turkey. It is likely he defected and provided valuable intelligence to the U.S. and Israel about a secret Iranian enrichment facility under construction in Iran and about Iran's help in building a secret nuclear reactor in Syria.

Then last year, Sha'harah Ramiri(ph), a nuclear engineer, disappeared while on religious pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia. Iran says the CIA abducted him but some analysts believe he too defected and provided intelligence to the U.S. about that secret enrichment site at Fordo, the existence of which was made public in September almost simultaneously by President Obama and Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

That's the view of Mohammed Sahimi(ph), an Iran analyst who writes for the Web site Tehran Bureau.

Mr. MOHAMMED SAHIMI (Analyst, Tehran Bureau): All indications are that Iran became aware that he has disappeared and he's not going to come back. So, if you put everything together, this story emerges that he probably defected, he probably has some information about Fordo facility and that's why both the United States and Iran decided to go out and publicly announce it.

SHUSTER: There is still much that is murky about all of these cases. What can be said for sure is that the spy game in Iran is treacherous, and with the bombing earlier this week, getting more and more dangerous all the time.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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