(Updates with Mujahadeen statement in 11th paragraph.)
Jan. 12 (Bloomberg) -- The Iranian government said in a letter to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon that a civilian nuclear scientist who was killed by a bomb yesterday was the latest victim of a foreign terror campaign.
“Based on the existing evidence collected by the relevant Iranian security authorities, similar to previous incidents, perpetrators used the same terrorist method in assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists, i.e. attaching a sticky magnetic bomb to the car carrying the scientists and detonating it,” Mohammad Khazaee, Iran’s ambassador to the UN, said in the letter yesterday. “Furthermore, there is firm evidence that certain foreign quarters are behind such assassinations.”
Iranian officials have accused the U.S. and Israel of targeting Iranian nuclear scientists in an effort to halt Iran’s nuclear program, which Western nations say may be aimed at producing atomic weapons. Tensions have risen over U.S. and European efforts to increase economic sanctions on Iran because of the nuclear program.
Khazaee said Mostafa Ahamdi Roshan, who was killed in a Tehran bomb blast, was the fourth prominent Iranian scientist to be targeted in similar attacks. Roshan, a deputy director at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in Isfahan province, and another person died in the latest attack, Khazaee said.
“This terrorist action was undertaken by elements of the Zionist regime and those who claim to fight against terrorism,” the official Islamic Republic News Agency cited Iranian Vice President Mohammad-Reza Rahimi as saying.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said by telephone that he had no comment on the reports.
“I want to categorically deny any United States involvement in any kind of act of violence inside Iran,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters yesterday in Washington. “There has to be an understanding between Iran, its neighbors and the international community that finds a way forward for it to end its provocative behavior, end its search for nuclear weapons and rejoin the international community.”
Some Republican presidential candidates in the U.S. have supported efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear program by attacking its scientists. In a November debate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich endorsed “taking out their scientists,” and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum called it ”a wonderful thing” when Iranian scientists are killed.
Previous attacks against Iranian nuclear scientists involved the assassination of Massoud Ali-Mohammadi, killed by a bomb outside his Tehran home in January 2010, and an explosion in November of that year that took the life of Majid Shahriari and wounded Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, who is now the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization.
“While it is difficult to gauge the impact of the scientists’ deaths on the country’s nuclear development, Iranian officials have already acknowledged they have a human resources problem in the program, largely because of the sharp political differences within the country,” Meir Javedanfar, lecturer on Iranian politics at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center in Israel, said in a telephone interview.
The attacks on scientists may be the work of a foreign intelligence agency such as Israel’s Mossad, according to a U.S. official who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity because intelligence matters are classified. They also could have been carried out by an Iranian exile group such as the People’s Mujahadeen Organization of Iran working independently or in cooperation with a foreign intelligence agency, the official said in a telephone interview.
Attributing the murder to the Mujahadeen is “absolutely false,” the group said in an e-mailed statement.
It’s also possible that internal opponents of the Iranian regime might have helped the Mujahadeen e-Khalq or foreign agents identify, locate and target important figures in Iran’s nuclear program, the official said.
That alone is difficult, said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former Central Intelligence Agency specialist on Iran who is now at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a Washington foreign- policy research organization.
“It’s not as if you can look people like this up in the Natanz phone book,” he said in a telephone interview.
It’s conceivable that Iran’s Interior Ministry may have targeted at least some of the scientists because it suspected they were disloyal, according to Gerecht and the U.S. official. Using magnetic bombs attached to their vehicles would make it appear that Israel was behind the killings.
Mossad was suspected of using such a “sticky bomb” to kill Lebanese Hezbollah terrorist leader Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus in February 2008, although that was never proved, the official said.
Other incidents in Iran in recent months have raised suspicions of sabotage against the country’s nuclear program.
A November explosion at a military base west of Tehran killed at least 17 people including a director in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, state media reported at the time. Last year, malicious software known as Stuxnet affected computer systems controlling several centrifuges used in Iran’s uranium- enrichment program, Iranian officials have said.
The latest killing also follows an Iranian court’s Jan. 9 decision to sentence an American of Iranian descent, Amir Mirzaei Hekmati, to death for spying. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland has said allegations that Hekmati worked for the CIA were “simply untrue.”
Iran is under increasing pressure to curb what the International Atomic Energy Agency and a number of western nations have said may be a program to build nuclear weapons. The IAEA reported in November, citing unidentified sources it called “credible,” that Iranian work toward a nuclear weapon continued until 2010 -- seven years after U.S. Intelligence agencies determined with high probability that Tehran’s government had stopped.
European Union foreign ministers plan to meet on Jan. 23 to discuss imposing an oil embargo on Iran. Iranian officials have threatened to shut the Strait of Hormuz, a transit route for a fifth of the world’s oil, if crude exports are sanctioned.
Crude rose 0.7 percent to $101.53 at 8:30 a.m. in London, after reaching an eight-month high above $103 last week. Futures are up more than 10 percent in the past year.
Yesterday’s attack “comes in the middle of heightened tensions, and it helps Iran to play on a sense of threat that it is under a lot of pressure,” Gala Riani, a Middle East analyst at London-based forecaster IHS Global Insight, said by telephone. “It can also be beneficial to more extremist elements in the government who are supporting further military drills in the Strait of Hormuz.”
Iran conducted naval exercises near the Strait for 10 days that ended early this month. Iran also announced on Jan. 6 plans for “naval war games” to be conducted by the Revolutionary Guard Corps next month.
--With assistance from Calev Ben-David in Jerusalem and Flavia Krause-Jackson in United Nations. Editors: Larry Liebert, Kenneth Fireman, Andrew J. Barden
To contact the reporters on this story: Ladane Nasseri in Tehran at firstname.lastname@example.org; Nicole Gaouette in Washington at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at firstname.lastname@example.org