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Are the assassinations of Iranian scientists an act of terrorism?

Iran has many capable engineers, and none of the victims appear to have had indispensable knowledge. But spreading fear among the living can slow them down and deter young recruits.

By Staff writer / January 12, 2012

Evidence of a covert war against Iran's nuclear program is mounting. Yesterday's assassination of an Iranian scientist tied to the program is just the most recent data point in the last year that indicates an accelerating effort to spread fear and slow the country's nuclear work.

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Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, a chemist who the Iranian state press says was the marketing director for Iran's Natanz nuclear facility, was the latest victim. He was killed by a small bomb affixed to the underside of his car, the same method used to murder nuclear physicist Massoud Ali Mohammadi in Tehran exactly a year ago. In all, four scientists connected to nuclear work in Iran have been killed since the start of 2010.

In September 2010, the Stuxnet computer virus, the most sophisticated cyberweapon deployed in history, was uncovered. The virus – which computer security efforts said was too complex to have been built without a large team and extensive resources – targeted Iranian nuclear enrichment centrifuges designed to produce highly enriched uranium, slowing Iran's enrichment for months.

Though Iran says its nuclear program is simply meant to produce power, highly enriched uranium could also be used in the production of a nuclear bomb – the aspect of the program that US and Israeli officials find most worrying.

Whoever is responsible, the murders appear to be as much about spreading terror as they are about stopping the nuclear program. Iran has legions of capable engineers, and none of the victims appear to have had indispensable knowledge or abilities. According to the Congressional Research Service, Iran's main nuclear research complex in Isfahan probably has 3,000 employees alone, and the there are about 10 other major nuclear sites in the country.

But spreading fear among the living can slow them down, spread confusion, or deter young recruits. If scientists became frightened enough, they might be reluctant to travel to work or conferences inside the country. Meanwhile, enhanced security measures at the sites could prove cumbersome. 

In November 2010, Majid Shahriari, a nuclear engineer at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, was killed by a car bomb. In July 2011, engineer Darioush Rezaeinejad, believed to be working within Iran's secretive nuclear program, was gunned down in the street. Last November, Maj. Gen. Hassan Moghaddam, considered the father of Iran's missile program, died with 16 others in a still unexplained explosion at a military base.


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