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Iran Developing Cult Of Personality Around Slain Nuclear Scientists

Iranian students hold up pictures of Iranian scientist Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan, who was killed in a bomb blast on January 11, as they wait for the arrival of the IAEA delegates at Tehran's Imam Khomeini International Airport on January 29.
On January 11, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan became the fourth Iranian nuclear scientist to be assassinated in two years -- the latest victim of an apparent covert war aimed at slowing Iran's nuclear program.

Roshan and the other dead scientists are very much alive, however, to the Iranian regime, which has begun evoking their tragic fate in state-orchestrated events.

During a ceremony on February 14 where President Mahmud Ahmadinejad announced the country's latest nuclear technology advances, a framed photo of Roshan and his slain colleagues were shown prominently on state television.

Ahmadinejad sat the young daughter of Dariush Rezaeinejad, an electronics expert who was killed in Tehran in 2011, on his knees during the ceremony, which showed nuclear rods being inserted into Tehran's research reactor.

The teenage son of Majid Shahriari, another slain nuclear scientist, cut the ribbon.

At another ceremony, this one at the Natanz uranium-enrichment facility and linked via video to the one in Tehran, recent victim Roshan's father inaugurated the work of "a new generation" of centrifuges coming into operation .

That same day, the names of the websites of Iran's nuclear facilities were switched to the names of the country's "nuclear martyrs," Iranian news agencies reported.

The Natanz facility website is now named for Roshan, who worked there as a deputy director for commercial affairs.

Honoring 'Nuclear Martyrs'

Pictures and posters with a smiling Roshan were distributed at last week's state rallies to mark the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. And some Iranians carried signs with Roshan's picture and the words, "I am also a nuclear scientist."

The semi-official Mehr news agency ran a photo of dozens of children holding masks to their faces with that slogan and Roshan's photo printed on them.

Earlier in the week, at an event attended by Iran's defense and education ministers, Roshan and Rezaeinejad were given honorary Ph.D.s.

Iran believes the nuclear scientists were targeted after information from the United Nation's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was leaked.

When IAEA inspectors visited Iran last month to inspect the country's nuclear sites, a group of hardliners carrying pictures of Ahmadi Roshan were waiting at the airport.

Former Iranian diplomat Mohammad Hassan Ghadiri Abyaneh suggested that the UN inspectors go on a "pilgrimage" to the graves of the "nuclear martyrs."

All told, several events have been held in recent weeks that summoned memories of the assassinated scientists. Iran's chief nuclear negotiator even called them "a model" for scientists and academics throughout the Islamic world.

Building Public Support

The personality cult being developed around the dead men appears to be an attempt by the regime to gain public support ahead of the March 2 parliamentary elections and as the country faces unprecedented international pressure over its nuclear activities.

An Iran-based observer says that the authorities will do "anything" to boost voter turnout for the sensitive vote.

"It is of course good to remember the innocent scientists who were killed. But it's questionable why, ahead of the elections, their faces and names are everywhere," he says. "[The authorities] are seeking support among people who are suffering because of the rising prices."

He says the propaganda-heavy homage to the nuclear scientists is also part of Tehran's attempts to generate support for the nuclear program.

A Tehran-based Iranian journalist, however, says that most people aren't paying attention to the propaganda.

"The majority of people don't care about these issues and what [officials] say and do," he says. "They are trying to deal with their economic problems and watching [the popular satellite channel] Farsi1."
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.