An Iranian nuclear scientist was killed Jan. 11 in Tehran when an explosive device attached to his vehicle detonated. Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan, who allegedly supervised a department at Iran's primary uranium enrichment complex, Natanz, was the fifth Iranian scientist connected to the nuclear program killed in the past five years. Given the tactics and target set, the attacks likely were carried out by local actors with foreign sponsorship. Besides continuing a trend, Ahmadi-Roshan's death also revealed that Iran could be pursuing a second method of uranium enrichment.
An Iranian scientist was killed on the campus of the Allameh Tabatabai University in Tehran on Jan. 11. Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan, a 32-year-old lecturer and allegedly supervisor of a department at Iran's primary uranium enrichment facility, Natanz, and his driver and bodyguard were killed when an explosive device magnetically attached to Ahmadi-Roshan's vehicle detonated. The device was put in place by two people on motorcycles and left the vehicle largely intact, though it killed Ahmadi-Roshan instantly. Ahmadi-Roshan was the fifth Iranian scientist with ties to Tehran's nuclear program killed in the past five years (and another, Fereidoun Abbasi Davani, was injured in an assassination attempt in November 2010 when assailants on motorcycles placed an explosive device on his vehicle). Most recently, in July 2011, assailants on motorcycles shot dead nuclear engineer Darioush Rezaeinejad in his vehicle in eastern Tehran. In November 2010, scientist Majid Shahriari was assassinated while driving to work when motorcyclists attached an explosive device to his vehicle (this attack and the one that injured Davani were simultaneous). In January 2010, Masoud Ali Mohammadi, a nuclear physicist linked to Tehran University, was killed by an explosive device attached to a motorcycle, which was parked near a driveway where Mohammadi pulled in. In 2007, materials scientist Ardeshir Hassanpour allegedly was fatally poisoned by radioactive material. The targeting of scientists linked to Iran's nuclear program is a continuing trend that Stratfor has been tracking for years. It appears that the tactics for attacking these individuals have changed over the years and have settled on motorcyclists attacking targets in their vehicles — an apparently effective method. The Ahmadi-Roshan assassination fits the model of many past assassinations, and our analysis from the dual November 2010 attacks — that the attacks most likely were conducted by local assets with foreign assistance — holds. The device used in the attack appears to have had a delayed detonation, as witnesses reported seeing the assailants attaching something to the car and speeding off before it detonated. Given the specifications of the attack, it is most likely the device was timed, allowing the assailants a brief delay to escape the immediate vicinity. According to Google Earth, Ahmadi-Roshan was assassinated within a couple of blocks of a freeway, giving the inconspicuous assailants a quick escape route. Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi claimed soon after the Ahmadi-Roshan attack that there was evidence of foreign-sponsored terrorism. His choice of words implies an element of local support. The capability to construct explosive devices with timers is certainly indigenous to Iran. Similar devices and tactics that emerged — particularly in Iraq and to a lesser degree in Afghanistan — to target U.S. forces there have been linked to Iran, so it is not unexpected to see such devices being used within Iran. Not only is the ability to carry out such attacks indigenous to Iran, but so is a motive. Numerous ethnic minority and militant groups — Kurdish militants linked to the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan, Sunni separatists in Sistan-Baluchistan linked to Jundallah, the anti-Iranian group Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MeK) that is currently in Iraq and Azeri separatists — have motives to undermine the regime. But the specific targeting of individuals linked to Iran's nuclear program suggests foreign sponsors. The United States has led an international effort to enact sanctions against Iran in protest of the country's nuclear program, and Israel has been very vocal in its opposition to the program and Iran's rising influence in the Middle East. Given the tactics and target set, these attacks — including the Ahmadi-Roshan assassination — most likely were carried out by local actors with foreign assistance in areas such as target identification, attack coordination and funding. Indeed, Iran's Fars News Agency has claimed that Israeli intelligence agency Mossad worked with MeK to conduct these attacks. There has been no claim from any party for either the Ahmadi-Roshan assassination or past attacks, but a combination like Mossad and MeK does not seem unlikely. Although individual attacks do not necessarily do measurable damage to Iran's nuclear program — hundreds, if not thousands, of scientists and technicians are involved in the program, and redundancy is built into the system — the ability to consistently threaten individuals linked to the program does have an effect. It forces Iran to increase security, possibly at the cost of expediency, thus slowing down research and development. It also increases suspicion and fear among those within the program, and such working conditions likely would cause distractions. Beyond continuing a trend in assassinations, Ahmadi-Roshan's death revealed that the Iranians could be pursuing a method of uranium enrichment other than centrifuges. There are two main methods of uranium enrichment: gas centrifuges and gas diffusion. Al Jazeera reported that Ahmadi-Roshan was in charge of a project working on polymer membranes, which are necessary for gas diffusion but not for centrifuges. Ahmadi-Roshan was an author on an academic paper studying specific properties of polymer membranes, so he did have some experience in the field. All official reports about Iran's nuclear program until now have indicated that Iran was working on the centrifuge method of uranium enrichment, and this has certainly been the focus of Iranian efforts. More than 6,000 centrifuges are in operation at the Natanz site, and reports have surfaced in the past week that a more fortified plant, Fordow, has become operational near Qom. While it is perfectly prudent for Iran to pursue alternatives to its centrifuge efforts, Iran is also known to have struggled with refining the quality and enrichment capacity of its centrifuges. If Iran has begun to more aggressively pursue gas diffusion, it could indicate that these frustrations are significant.