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« The Latest from Iran (13 January): Speculations and Realities | Main | Iran Special: Interpreting the Death of Professor Ali-Mohammadi »

Iran Analysis: Nuclear Myths, Rogue Elements, and Professor Ali-Mohammadi's Murder

Enduring America's Mr Smith, who has first-hand sources and knowledge of Professor Massoud Ali-Mohammadi, the physicist killed yesterday in the explosion of a booby-trapped motorcycle, assesses the consequences of the murder:

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.

Iran Special: Interpreting the Death of Professor Ali-Mohammadi
Latest Iran Video: The Leverett Line on Killing of Professor Mohammadi (13 January)
Latest Iran Video: How State Media Frames Killing of “Nuclear” Professor (12 January)
The Latest from Iran (13 January): Speculations and Realities
The Latest from Iran (12 January): The Killing of the Professor

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.

Reader Comments (10)

Thank you very much for this great insight. I wonder if the rogue agents who targeted this mild-mannered professor were trying to use "social profiling" as described in the last section of this article posted on EA yesterday . It seems the professor was very well liked by his colleagues and students, perhaps that was why they chose him, because it would affect many others.

I don't think it's fair to say the blame cannot be pinned on Ali Khamenei. With supreme power comes supreme responsibility. If there are rogue elements assassinating people, and they've been roaming free since the nineties, that is 100% Khamenei's fault. It is his primary responsibility to ensure the safety of the citizens, and if he cannot accomplish that, or even take any steps to TRY to accomplish it, he is proven unfit for the position and should be removed by the Assembly of Experts. If they refuse to do their constitutional duty, I don't see how the people can be blamed for sacking the lot of them.

January 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRev Magdalen

These extra judicial terror squads have even publicly stated their formation and you would think they would be the first line of suspects

January 13, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterpotkin azarmehr

Thanks for articulating what was perfectly obvious to those of us who have been watching for many years.

January 13, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterzee

And while we are all hypothezing (guessing?) about what is going on in Iran - here is another thought from out of left field.

Perhaps the murder of Professor Ali-Mohammadi is meant to bring the students out onto the streets once more - where they can be further attacked. The IRGC and Basiji have made their intentions fairly clear regarding further demos.


January 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBarry

Barry the thought did cross my mind that if the Basiji/IRGC insist on calling the Professor THEIR martyr, then the funeral might be an "allowed" public gathering, and the Greens insist he was with them and are planning to meet to mourn him also, things could get ugly if they all decide to meet at the same place at the same time.

January 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRev Magdalen

I would put my money on a bet that this was the work of the Regime.

They have 3 wins with this - 1. they claim that the dastardly Westerners did it. 2. they claim it is an assault on the nuclear programme. 3. They know that the other Uni Professors know who did it - and is a warning to the other Professors.

Very clever on the part of the Regime - except that it is so obviously transparent!


January 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBarry


I have now seen it said several times that Dr. Ali-Mohammadi was a “particle physicist” which, it is implied, rules out his participation in the weapons program and the field of "nuclear physics". This is not true. I have not found a complete list of his publications yet, but it is certain from what I have seen, that he was very knowledgeable regarding synchrotron emissions. This form of X-ray is widely used in materials research, and is commonly known as a tool to inspect reactor parts that must perform under extreme conditions. With the regime needing to build every element of a program from scratch, I would actually be shocked if they didn’t have a synchrotron expert on staff.

While it does puzzle me a bit why Israel is making noises about his participation in the weapons program(What can they gain?). Having said that, it is enough (for me anyway) that his students, Mr. Smith's connections, along with a review of his research all point away from the weapons program.

Knowing how careful you are to report as accurately as possible, I just wanted you to be aware that his specialty - in and of itself- does not divorce him from nuclear physics and it would be better to put the stronger arguments forward.

January 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJack N


Thanks. I am indebted to you for pointing this out. My understanding, from colleagues helping me with a basic education in physics, is that Professor Ali-Mohammadi's specialism and academic papers might have provided theoretical advances that could be applied by those working as nuclear physicists in an Iranian programme.

At the same time, my sources, those of Mr Smith, and the information you cite all indicate that Ali-Mohammadi was always a faculty member at Tehran University and never employed directly by Iranian authorities in nuclear development.


January 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterScott Lucas

How incredibly, deeply foolish of me. Here I sit around with my work colleagues during the day and we worry about the fact that the U.S. has almost no human intelligence in Iran. But it turns out there was no reason to worry - the U.S. has spies everywhere in Iran! We are crawling with them all over Shemiran. From Gheytarieh to Farmanieh to Elahiyeh,we have well placed, well equipped people, and there is no problem 'eliminating' anyone we want to at any time.

Furthermore, how silly for me to be worried that our government didn't understand the Green Movement, or was ignoring the domestic situation in Iran. It turns out that I was sadly misguided. It turns out that we were so engaged that we know who everybody is - all the way down to third-tier fairly politically-inactive particle physicists! Furthermore, we were smart enough to know that he was the one to eliminate in order to control the threat. Gosh, my country is great!

I promise that I will never again lose faith in the awesome power, reach, and acumen of the United States of America!

January 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKevin Scott

@ Kevin
There's always someone who's the last to find out :-)

RE your very interesting post of 12 January in 'How Far Do The Green Movements Go?' where you outline 3 issues you feel haven't received their due attention, here are two theories on the widening rift within the conservative establishment: Is Iran’s Regime Trying to Manufacture Its Own Opposition?

January 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine

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