Politics, Sci-Tech

Another one bites the centrifuge: Iranian nuclear scientist meets his fate

By Richard Poplak 12 January 2012

Care to take a guess at what the most dangerous occupation in the world is? If you’re thinking “Iranian nuclear scientist”, you’ve won a free trip to Tehran and a tour of the Natanz uranium enrichment plant. For another young man working on Iran’s nuclear program has been killed. And the stakes couldn’t be higher. By RICHARD POPLAK.

Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, 32, was, by all accounts, a very clever young man. He was a professor at a technical university, and a department supervisor at Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment plant. (Think Homer Simpson, but thinner, younger and without the beer.) Natanz, most pundits believe, is the nexus of Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapons programme. The site has been war-gamed dozens, hundreds of times, and you can bomb it online via Kuma War if you so wish. But as things stand, bombing Natanz is not viable. Instead, someone, or “someones”, is blowing up the facility’s scientists.

This is not the first incident of a scientist involved with Iran’s nuclear programme being targeted by groups unknown. The killing was clinical and expertly undertaken – a motorcyclist wove through the insanity of Tehran’s traffic and attached a magnetic device to Roshan’s Puegeot 405. He was killed instantly, along with his driver.

The assassination comes at a tricky time. Tensions between Iran and the United States have not been as high since the Islamic Revolution, and the subsequent hostage crisis. Iran insists that its nuclear programme is meant to keep the country’s fridges and air conditioners running, but the United States, Israel and the European Union feel otherwise.

Two months ago, the International Atomic Energy Agency produced not quite a smoking gun, but evidence that smoke could, at some point, arise from a nuclear warhead. They claim that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, and that it is getting closer to developing one.

Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation insists that this is not the case. They said, in a statement, that, “America and Israel’s heinous act will not change the course of the Iranian nation.” Soon, the Fordo plant near the holy city of Qum will go online. It is buried deep underground, and thought to be almost impossible to destroy with conventional weapons. Nantaz may be relatively easy to hit; Fordo is a different story.

In lieu of a full-blown war, which the Obama administration believes it cannot afford, numerous acts of sabotage have been lobbed Iran’s way – some successful, some less so. There was Stuxnet, the most famous act of cyber war on record – a virus that tore through Nantaz’s computers, scuttling the programme there for months.

And Professor Rashon was not, of course, the first scientist to be removed from his post with extreme prejudice. Almost exactly two years ago, Massoud Ali Mohammadi was killed in Tehran. Fars, the semi-official news service, was not impressed. They were even less impressed when later in 2010, a young Iraqi named Mohammed al-Fous was gunned down in his Baghdad neighbourhood. Fous had been working with the Iranians, and the killing had all the hallmarks of a hit.

“Al-Fouz,” wrote Fars, “a genius university student, had discovered a new formula for producing peaceful nuclear energy and had been awarded by several international scientific festivals.”

The hit was immediately attributed to Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, which the Iranians blame for just about everything. Fars went on to write that, “Earlier reports had shown Mossad’s involvement in the assassination of more than 350 Iraqi nuclear scientists as well as more than 300 university professors, and the attack on Mohammad al-Fouz was the most recent case in a chain of attacks carried out in recent years.”

Roshan was the fourth scientist linked directly to Iran’s nuclear programme to be targeted in the last two years. How successful has this strategy been in halting progress and Nantaz and Fordo? Firstly, know one really knows whether this is a strategy, per se. Second, if it is a strategy, no one really knows if it is working or not. The pundits agree that it is slowing things down, but it is by no means halting them.

Sabotage and espionage aside, the United States and the European Union have been pushing for increased sanctions against Iran, hitting them where it hurts – their oil exports. For their part, the Iranians have threatened to shut the Straight of Hormuz for business, effectively cutting off a huge portion of the West’s oil imports. And so the tensions ratchet up, and all sides have their fingers on the trigger.

One thing is certain: it is very, very dangerous to work on Iran’s nuclear programme. As the days march on, it will no doubt become more dangerous still. DM



Read more:

  • Fars on the murder of an Iraqi scientist.

Photo: A policeman walks past the car belonging to Iranian nuclear scientist Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan at a blast site outside a university in northern Tehran January 11, 2012. Ahmadi-Roshan was killed by a bomb placed on his car by a motorcyclist in Tehran on Wednesday, and a city official blamed Israel for the attack, similar to attacks on nuclear scientists just over a year ago. REUTERS/IIPA/Sajad Safari


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