Mystery surrounds the life and death of the Iranian nuclear scientist Prof. Masoud Mohammadi, 50, who was killed by a bomb-rigged motor cycle outside his home on Tuesday, Jan. 12.
Some sources claimed that he did not work for Iran's disputed nuclear program but rather backed the opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi's bid for the presidency on a list of 420 academics in last June's discredited election.
At the same time, Iranian television called him “a great scientist" who was "committed" to the 1979 revolution and Ahmadinejad's leadership." He was given a grand funeral with heroic Islamic trappings Thursday, Jan. 14.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian and counter-terror experts explore two contradictory theories with regard to the hand and motive behind his assassination.
It can't have been easy for the Islamic regime in Tehran to admit that the American CIA or Israeli Mossad may have succeeded in reaching into the heart of Tehran for a targeted assassination, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources report. This was no way to inspire the average Iranian's trust in his government's ability to assure his personal security, a confidence undermined by seven months of bloody political street turmoil.
Yet on Wednesday, January 13, Iranian Parliament (Majlis) Speaker Ali Larijani, one of Iran's more serious and level-headed politicians, claimed: "We had clear information several days ago that the intelligence apparatus of the Zionist regime and the CIA wanted to implement terrorist acts in Tehran," he said, adding:
"Using such a rootless group as a cover was a new disgrace for U.S. PresidentBarack Obama."
Larijani was referring to "The Iranian Royal Council," a group that purportedly took responsibility for the assassination of Professor Masoud Ali-Mohammadi by means of a bomb-rigged motorbike outside his North Tehran home on Tuesday, January 12.
"An American-based monarchy group … claimed responsibility for this terrorist act," Larijani said, "Maybe the CIA and the Zionist regime (Israel) thought they can mislead us with such an absurd statement."
Holding the US and Israel responsible will also have revived the memories of recent breaches of security.
On October 18 2009, the powerful Revolutionary Guards Corps Ground Forces commander, Gen. Nur Ali Shoustari, was assassinated in the southeastern town of Sarbaz, along with a group of senior IRGC officers. Iranian Foreign Minister,Manouchehr Mottaki, then cited information attesting to the hand of Israeli intelligence.
Seven weeks later, on December 6 2009, an Iranian pilgrims' bus was blown up inDamascus during an important visit by National Security Adviser, Said Jalali. The story reached the media before Iranian and Syrian officials clamped down on its release.
The hallmarks of a professional hit
Therefore, while the average Iranian may have suspected US and Israeli covert agents were at large in remote parts of his country and the capital of a key ally, now he has it from the horse's mouth that his own capital has been penetrated as well.
So the regime, though ever-conscious of its security interests and public image, must have had a compelling reason for blaming the Ali-Mohammadi hit on hostile, external agencies.
One reason would be their need to turn the finger away from an internal hand in view of the opposition's accusation of a radical faction within Iran's Ministry of Internal Security as seeking cynically to prove the reformists capable of trying to destabilize supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. (See next article discussing Theory No.2 for the scientist's murder).
Secondly, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly counter-terrorism sources report, certain clues really did point strongly to a foreign covert agency:
1. Prof. Ali-Mohammadi's assassination bore professional hallmarks recalling the liquidation of Hizballah's security chief Imad Moughniyeh in Damascus on February 12, 2009. In both cases, a small charge of 200 grams, detonated by remote control, was applied with lethal effect.
2. Whoever pulled the switch knew the target well, had tracked him long enough to be acquainted with his daily routines and habits. This agent must have been posted close enough to identify the scientist when he left home and make sure he alone and no one else was targeted.
The martyr's funeral indicated the assassins knew their target
3. Despite all the denials, Prof. Ali-Mohammadi was undoubtedly a senior member of the team of scientists working for Iran's secret nuclear program and the unmistakable target of the attack.
Had he been an ordinary academic, the regime would not have made a public fuss of his death but rather played it down as a run-of-the-mill crime against an ordinary citizen or even a gangland settling of scores, or else kept it quiet. This was impossible because his colleagues in the nuclear weapon program would have asked questions about his unexplained death or disappearance.
To still questions, the authorities opted to present the case as a prominent cause célèbre and staged a grand funeral Thursday, Jan. 14, honoring the dead scientist as a national Islamic martyr.
By putting the episode in the limelight, our Iranian sources say Tehran is also showing it means to remove the gloves and deal harshly with the assassins. Top regime officials say that since the US and Israel were willing to let their covert agents loose in the heart of Tehran for targeted liquidations, then American and Israeli officials and scientists must no longer expect to feel safe anywhere in the world, including their own homelands.
This extreme change in Iran's external targeting policy is evidence that Prof. Ali-Mohammadi was no mild nonentity and his death dealt a severe blow to Tehran's nuclear aspirations and intelligence services.
While DEBKA-Net-Weekly tends to subscribe to this theory, a second one deserves consideration too.