Timeline: Israel and Iran’s nuclear scientists

Al-Ahram Weekly , Tuesday 1 Dec 2020

The style of the killing of Fakhrizadeh also appears to follow the pattern of the killing of other Iranian scientists in the past

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh
In this photo released by the official website of the Iranian Defense Ministry, military personnel stand near the flag-draped coffin of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a scientist who was killed on Friday, during a funeral ceremony in Tehran, Iran, Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. AP

Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a leading architect of Iran’s nuclear programme, died after his car was apparently ambushed in a district east of Tehran on 27 November in an assassination that has been linked to Israel.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the killing an act of “cowardice in which there were serious indications of an Israeli role.” The Iranian state media has accused Israel of being behind the attack. Israel has made no official comment on the allegations.

At least four other similar figures have been allegedly assassinated by Israel over the past decade. Because of his importance to Iran’s nuclear programme, Fakhrizadeh was accompanied by bodyguards when he was attacked, though Iran has downplayed his importance, describing him only as a scientist and researcher.

However, in 2018, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that his government had acquired tens of thousands of documents from what he called Iran’s “atomic archives,” he referred to Fakhrizadeh as the director of Iran’s nuclear programme. 

The style of the killing of Fakhrizadeh also appears to follow the pattern of the killing of other Iranian scientists in the past, often taking place as the men were on their way to or from work. Israeli journalist Yossi Melman, an intelligence correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, tweeted that Fakhrizadeh has been “wanted for many years by Mossad. His death is a major psychological and professional blow for Iran.”

Other Iranian scientists targeted by Israel have included:

12 January 2010: Particle physicist Masoud Ali Mohammadi, born in 1959, was killed on his way to work by a motorcycle bomb in northern Tehran.

The official media in Iran blamed the attack on Israeli intelligence, and Iran later hanged Majid Jamali Fashi after he was found guilty of being an agent for the Israeli spy agency Mossad. Earlier, Ardeshir Hassanpour, an award-winning figure in Iran’s nuclear programme, was murdered in January 2007, with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz saying that Israel’s Mossad had been responsible.

Mohammadi was a professor at the University of Tehran and had worked at the UN-backed Synchrotron-Light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME), an atomic research centre in Jordan.

He had worked with the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) on several projects, and his knowledge of the IRGC’s activities could also have made him a potential target.

29 November 2010: Majid Shahriari, a senior Iranian nuclear scientist, was killed when a bomb was attached to his car by a motorcyclist in northern Tehran in an attack blamed on Israel.

Shahriari had managed a “major project” for the country’s Atomic Energy Organisation, Iran’s nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi told the semiofficial Iranian IRNA news agency. 

He had published dozens of articles on nuclear research, at least five of which list Salehi as a co-author. He was an expert on neutron transport, a field that lies at the heart of the nuclear chain reactions used in bombs and reactors.

Shahriari was also associated with the SESAME project. Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, a 52-year-old nuclear scientist working for Iran’s Defence Ministry, was wounded at the same time in a separate attack.

According to the Iranian website Mashregh News, Abbasi was “one of the few specialists who can separate isotopes,” a process crucial for the manufacture of uranium fuel for nuclear power stations and uranium-based nuclear weapons.

23 July 2011: Scientist Darioush Rezaeinejad, 35, was killed by gunmen in eastern Tehran in an attack described by an Israeli intelligence officer interviewed by the German magazine Der Spiegel as “the first public operation by new Mossad chief Tamir Pardo.”

According to the Iranian IRNA news agency, Rezaeinejad was a doctoral student at Khajeh Nasroldeen Toosi University in Iran. The state-run media initially identified him as Darioush Rezaei, a physics professor and expert in neutron transport, but then backtracked. A former official at the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verified that the victim was Rezaeinejad, who had participated in developing high-voltage switches, a key component in setting off the explosions needed to trigger a nuclear warhead.

The official described Rezaeinejad as a physicist who had worked in the past for the Iranian Defence Ministry on projects linked to nuclear weapons development, including high-voltage switches.

11 January 2012: Mustafa Ahmadi Roshan, a chemist and director of the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Plant in central Iran, died after two assailants on a motorcycle attached magnetic bombs to his car.

Roshan was at least the third Iranian scientist linked to Iran’s nuclear programme to be killed in the preceding two years. The Natanz Plant is one of two sites where Western leaders suspect Iranian scientists are advancing towards the creation of a nuclear weapon.

The killing of Roshan came after Iran’s announcement that it would start production at its second major uranium enrichment site and after it had been criticised for opening the Fordow Plant near the city of Qum, an underground enrichment facility.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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