The murder of Massoud Ali-Mohammadi adds yet another mystery to the litany of violence, unexplained circumstances, and unpredictable twists that Iran has been witnessing since June 12.
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Ali-Mohammadi was a mild-mannered academic who, like most of his colleagues, quietly supported reformist leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi in the run-up to the presidential vote and who became more vocal in its aftermath. However, his association with physics --- he was among the very first scholars to emerge from the Islamic Republic's universities with a Ph.D., made it easy for state media to link him to the nuclear field and for Western news organisations and Israeli analysts to quickly claim he was active in the nuclear programme of Iran.
The accusations brought forward by the latter group are baseless and sensationalist. Stuck with a complex topic that required careful attention, the Western media committed a series of major blunders. While experts of the field pored over Ali-Mohammadi's publication list and concluded that there was nothing nuclear in it, the Los Angeles Times claimed that the scientist had authored books on the nuclear topic, mixing up journal articles and full-fledged books as well as Ali-Mohammadi's specialism, particle physics, and nuclear physics. [A later revision of the profile changed "books" to "articles"] Other news sources merrily parroted the official Iranian state media line, which lost more and more credibility as the Iranian Atomic Energy Organisation denied any relationship with Ali-Mohammadi and Ahmad Shirzad, a close friend and lifelong colleague, ruled out any academic interest of the slain physicist in the field.
Friends, colleagues, and even specialists were adamant in stating that Ali-Mohammadi had no role whatsoever in Iran's nuclear programme. In an interview with the website Isracast, a former head of Israel's Mossad admitted that he had never heard of the physicist. The head of BBC Persian TV, Sadeq Saba, summed up the channel's exhaustive research yesterday on the flagship 60 Minutes programme with one clear message: Ali-Mohammadi was not, to the best of their knowledge, a nuclear scientist.
The question therefore arises: why would a foreign intelligence service venture so deep inside the heart of the present-day high-security atmosphere which looms over Tehran and plant such a powerful bomb to kill someone who was, at the most, an extremely peripheral figure in the much-feared Iranian nuclear programme? Why would opposition movements such as the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MKO) spend so many resources to kill a relatively anonymous university professor, when the power of the explosives planted in the motorcycle outside Ali-Mohammadi's home could have killed far more prominent people?
Clues as to what really happened yesterday may be gathered from the reaction of Ali-Mohammadi's colleagues and an ominous message put forth by the Combatant Clerics Association, the reformist group which counts Mohammad Khatami and Mehdi Karroubi as its members and which has been extremely forthright in its critical communiques since June 12.
The former group were cowering in fear last night, thinking that they could have been slain instead of Ali-Mohammadi and that they could be next. They had no doubts about what happened. The physicist was killed to bring about silence and terror within the restive community of scientists and academics who had produced a long list of open letters and appeals against the ongoing assaults of the Basiji on the university campuses.
The latter association's communique is even more revealing. It calls on the the authorities to stamp down upon the "autonomous activities" of the nirooha-yi khodsar ("self-acting groups"), a term used by the reformist press and leaders for the rogue elements within the more extremist branches of the security forces. These groups have been already active in the late 1990s in the "Chain Murders", during which at least 80 dissidents from various walks of life were killed.
The murder of Ali-Mohammadi was therefore almost certainly completely void of any government sanction or planning. It would be far-fetched to pin the blame on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government or on Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. However, the hasty reaction of the authorities and the statements associating the event to foreign agents --- which, as cogently noted by Sadeq Saba, imply that Iran is utterly unable to protect its own capital from foreign terrorist attacks ---- are more an attempt to cover up an embarrassing operation by rogue internal forces than a plausible explanation for what really went on in Qeytarieh in northern Tehran yesterday.
The onus is therefore on the authorities to prevent the killings of Seyed Ali Mousavi, Mir Hossein Mousavi's nephew, and Massoud Ali-Mohammadi from developing into a sequel to the Chain Murders.