All top Iranian scientists were given bodyguards and placed under stringent security after Prof. Massoud Ali Mohammadi, a quantum field theorist, elementary-particle physicist and a distinguished professor at the University of Tehran's the Department of Physics, was assassinated on January 12, 2010.
Since then, nuclear physicists have not been allowed to leave home unaccompanied by a bodyguard or drive their cars. Before taking the wheel, their personal guards carefully check for explosives inside the vehicle or planted nearby. These precautions were enforced after a booby-trapped motorcycle parked next to Prof. Mohammadi's car was detonated by remote control when he sat down at the wheel.
Monday, Nov. 29, they proved woefully inadequate.
The Shahid Beheshti University in northern Tehran is the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' (IRGC) space and rocket science institute. On Nov. 29, two of university's senior staff were targeted for attack. Prof. Majid Shahriari was killed and Prof. Fereydoun Abbasi badly injured, their personal bodyguards presenting no impediment to the assassins.
Two motorcycles, each carrying two riders, zoomed up to the scientists' cars in coordinated attacks in Army Square, one of the most traffic-clogged areas of the Iranian capital. According to the official version, the killers attached small explosives charges, called "sticky bombs" because of the magnets which adhere to the metal parts of vehicles, and within seconds pulled away. The explosives were detonated by remote control.
According to another Iranian version, the two teams of motorcyclists riddled the car with bullets fired from automatic weapons while driving at high speed.
The Natanz enrichment plant faces more idle times
Whereas Prof. Mohammadi worked under cover, the last two victims were familiar names to the UN International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna and the Western intelligence agencies following Iran's nuclear program.
Prof. Fereydoun Abbasi, who survived with serious injuries, is identified by DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources as the director of the Natanz centrifuge facility for uranium enrichment, and the most prominent Iranian centrifuge specialist.
Prof. Majid Shahriari, who died in the attack, was Iran's top expert on codes for the computer systems running its nuclear program. In this capacity, he oversaw operations for purging the system of the Stuxnet plague. The two scientists were well acquainted. From the second week of November, they worked together to beat the cyber attack on the centrifuges at the Natanz uranium enrichment plant.
The plant was totally shut down Nov. 16-22 because Shariari insisted he could not fight the Stuxnet invasion as long as unaffected production elements continued functioning. He warned that as long as they did, they too were susceptible to infection by the virus.
It therefore looks very much as though by killing the two professors, the assassins were meant to preempt the effort to cure the systemic paralysis inflicted by the Stuxnet malworm and keep the Natanz enrichment plant idle. With Hahriari and Abbasi out of the way, the facility could not avoid a second shutdown before long.
Iran's counterattack on the malworm goes back to square one
Tehran has imposed a heavy news blackout on the state of the plant and the scale of the viral infection. But its deep distress over the loss of its number one Stuxnet expert was hard to conceal.
On Monday, November 29, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said: "They (the enemy) had been successful in making problems for a limited number of our centrifuges, with software they had installed in electronic devices. Fortunately, our experts have discovered the origins of the problems, and today they (Iran's enemies) are unable to repeat these acts."
Ahmadinejad refused to say whether the Stuxnet computer virus had been responsible for the problems. To the journalist who ventured to put this question, he said: "Write this down – The Iranian president's answer to this question is silence. That's it."
The tone of frustration running through the president's replies and his acknowledgment of problems with the centrifuges imply that the damage is substantial and that, even seven months after Stuxnet first struck Iran's nuclear facilities, Tehran remains uncertain if and when the attack will be over and which parts are vulnerable to a second wave of attacks. The death of Shahriari, who led the counterattack on the malworm, sends the battle back to square one.
Nuclear staff panicked
The entire body of scientists, engineers, technicians and other staff employed in the nuclear program is moreover in a panic. They have to assume they and their families are under hostile scrutiny and their movements an open book. The killers of Shariari and Abbasi must have watched and recorded their victims' actions for months and drawn up a model of their routines, locations and timetables.
For many mornings, they must have shadowed the professors' cars driving from home to Shahid Beheshti University before they fixed the exact point and moment for attacking them and getting away without being caught.
The big question now is how did the watchers for so long escape the notice of the dozens of Iranian bodyguards working in shifts to protect the two scientists? What good were the bodyguards for preventing the killers hitting the men they were protecting and escaping without leaving a trace?
These days, Tehran looks as vulnerable to terror and assassination as Damascus.