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Who Assassinated Iran's Nuclear Scientist?

  • RFE/RL

Policemen gather evidence at a bomb blast site in Tehran, which killed nuclear scientist Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan on January 11.

Policemen gather evidence at a bomb blast site in Tehran, which killed nuclear scientist Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan on January 11.

When motorcycle bombers assassinated an Iranian nuclear scientist on January 11, they left behind no clues of who they were. But does the type of operation itself give any hints? RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel spoke with Shahshank Joshi, an analyst with the Royal United Services Institute in London.

RFE/RL: The assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan looked frighteningly easy. Two men on a motorcycle slapped a magnetic bomb on Roshan's car and as they sped away it exploded, killing him and the driver. But how difficult is it, in fact, to carry out an operation like this?

Shahshank Joshi: From the point of view of acquiring the target himself, I think that would have been relatively simple. We know most Western intelligence services and many Arab and even of course the Israeli intelligence service has a network of agents inside the Iranian nuclear program.

They've had almost a decade to build these up, many of these will have been cultivated outside of Iran, so it's not very hard to find the name of a relatively junior 32-year-old deputy head of procurement at a facility like Natanz. That's not the hard part.
Defense and security analyst Shashank Joshi

Defense and security analyst Shashank Joshi


I think the complexity of this operation lies in the actual implementation. Because unlike many assassinations, which require car bombs [and] particularly indiscriminate forms of killing, this was both reasonably discriminate -- it was very carefully targeted, very carefully timed -- and, of course, the assailants escaped, as they have done in almost every past such assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist.

And on top of all of that, the actual weapon used was a magnetic bomb, which contributed to the very careful blast that left passengers dead but others outside the vehicle unharmed."

RFE/RL: As you say, the type of bomb seems carefully chosen for the job. Does that give any hint about who was behind the assassination?

Joshi: We don't know enough about the explosives used. We don't know if they were particularly shaped charges or what the explosive content was, or any of those details and the Iranians are not likely to release them.
This is the textbook method by which an intelligence service would mount a covert operation.”


But the particular point of this is that it could be used in heavy traffic, by a motorcycle-based assailant to simply stick to the car and then move away very fast indeed without any real danger that the bomb would kill large numbers of pedestrians or outside civilians.

After the West -- the Western countries, the P5 countries [i.e. the five permanent members of the UN Security Council], and Germany -- have worked so hard to build this international coalition of sanctions against Iran, would they jeopardize that or would they provoke Iran even further at a time when they are trying to work very hard to get Iran back to the negotiating table?

The suggestion, therefore, is that either this was a group not involved with those sanctions or a state that was impatient with those sanctions and didn't think they would work anyway.

RFE/RL: In the wake of the assassination, some media have pointed to reports of the Israeli intelligence agency being active in the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, saying this might offer hints of who organized the attack and who carried it out. What do you make of those suggestions?

Joshi: It's possible that the suggestions of a Kurdistan link are instances of disinformation designed to throw people off the trail. In this kind of murky world of assassinations and covert actions one can never discount that possibility.
Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan

Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan


But the suggestion being made is not that these are Iranian Kurds but that they are Iranian exiles living in Iraqi Kurdistan, that recruitment was undertaken there, and that the individuals who planted the bomb were hired from that area because of their grievances against the Iranian state.

And of course this is the textbook method by which an intelligence service would mount a covert operation.

The traditional rule is that one doesn't use nationals of one's own country; you always recruit those from the country of your target or those from a third country.

So, it's a possibility I think we should consider seriously but we need some more evidence before we can really draw a firm link.

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