The assassination of an Iranian physicist in Tehran today has opened a new front in the confrontation between the government and the opposition, with both sides brandishing claims over who was responsible for his death.
Supporters of Iranian opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi claimed the victim was a critic of the government and accused the Islamic Republic of killing one of its top scientists. Meanwhile, state news outlets quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast as saying that “preliminary investigations” concluded that Masoud Ali-Mohammadi was murdered by the Israeli and American intelligence services.
“It’s either the MKO [an anti-regime opposition group that is on a US terrorist list] or foreign intel agencies,” argued Meir Javedanfar, an Israeli-Iranian analyst and coauthor of "The Nuclear Sphynx of Tehran." “Taking into consideration the resources and capabilities required plus the potential benefits, it’s likely to be one of the Western intelligence agencies.”
“For VAVAK [Iranian intelligence] to kill him in broad daylight and with such a method would be very damaging. It makes them look compromised and helpless against the West, and scares off other people from joining the nuclear program while striking fear in the hearts of those already working for it.”
From the testimonies of colleagues and friends, a portrait of Mr. Ali-Mohammadi emerged as a quiet and studious professor who supported Mr. Mousavi but shied away from activism.
"He came across very calm, unassuming, a real scientist," says Siavush Randjbar Daemi, a London-based who met Ali-Mohammadi at a social function in Tehran in March. "Interested in politics but not an activist, political-minded perhaps, and … a Mousavi supporter."
Ahmad Shirzad, a close friend and reformist member of parliament, said that Ali-Mohammadi was not just politicized but an activist, too, suggesting that the controversial June elections radicalized him.
A morning attack
The attack came just as Ali-Mohammadi left the house. "It was early in the morning and he had just got his car out of the garage, closed the door, and it wasn't a moment before I saw glass raining down on the house and bringing down the windows," Shirzad reported Ali-Mohammadi's wife as saying.
"He was targeted in order to silence university professors in the Green Movement," says Mr. Randjbar Daemi. "His associates are now scared that they will be targeted next, so in terms of creating terror, they have managed it handsomely."
"They've killed my father,” Mr. Shirzad reported Ali-Mohammadi’s son as telling him over the phone when the news broke. “They put a bomb in front of him. They shattered his brain. I can't believe it."
One blog entry allegedly written by a former student claimed that Ali-Mohammadi had been planning on fleeing the country. The writer charged the Islamic Republic with killing him to stop his specialist knowledge from being transferred abroad. Former students described how he advised them not to fear the regime’s bullets and himself participated in the post-election opposition demonstrations.
Both the government and the Green Movement denied that Ali-Mohammadi, one of Iran's first generation of nuclear physicists, was involved in his country's nuclear energy program, pointing out that he specialized in particle physics. Where they diverged was on his loyalties, with both sides claiming him as a supporter.
The government-aligned Fars News Agency reported that Mr Ali Mohammadi was “devout” and had been honored for intellectual excellence at a prestigious state award ceremony in 2007. It accused “hypocrites” of killing him, a popular term used by government media to refer to the exiled MKO opposition group.
"It usually takes a long time before they [the Iranian government] make any comment but in this particular case one official after another… came out with the same line, that he was a nuclear physicist and was assassinated by Iran's enemies,” Iranian analyst Sadegh Saba told the BBC.
Relatives and colleagues of the scientist say they are scared that the government has begun an assassination campaign intended to intimidate their opposition into silence.
“First it was Mousavi’s nephew, now Ali-Mohammadi,” said one Tehran-based academic who asked for anonymity. “They’re showing that they will stop at nothing.”