Update on the Tehran Attacks Targeting Scientists

6 MINS READNov 30, 2010 | 00:38 GMT
-/AFP/Getty Images
In light of new details, the attacks against the two scientists in the Iranian capital Nov. 29 look fairly sophisticated and perhaps more damaging to Tehran than the similar attack against scientist Massoud Ali-Mohammadi in January. The perpetrators behind the Nov. 29 attack were able to identify and track two seemingly high-profile scientists involved in Iran's nuclear program and constructed explosive devices that, according to images from the scene of one of the attacks, specifically targeted the scientists using shaped charges and projectiles. Furthermore, the attackers had the manpower and coordination to target both scientists simultaneously.
More details are emerging surrounding the attacks against two Iranian scientists the morning of Nov. 29 in Tehran. Imagery from the scene of one of the attacks suggests that well-trained individuals carried out the attacks. Also, details on the scientists' backgrounds suggest that they were of high value to Tehran and the regime's nuclear program. Dr. Majid Shahriari and Dr. Fereidoon Abassi were attacked in their vehicles as they were driving to Shahid Beheshti University in North Tehran, where they both worked as physics professors. The attacks occurred on opposite ends of Tehran — Shahriari was in a parking lot in the north of the city, Abassi in the south on Artash Street — at approximately 7:45 a.m. local time. It appears that in both cases, assailants on motorcycles drove up to the vehicles and attached an improvised explosive device (IED) to the vehicles' outside panels. Eyewitnesses said the IEDs exploded seconds later. Both men were traveling with their wives (both of whom were injured) and Shahriari had a driver (also injured). Images reportedly of the vehicle that Abassi was traveling in show that the driver's side of the car bore the brunt of the damage. Images reportedly of Shahriari's vehicle show far less damage. All that is visible are pockmarks in the hood of the car and in the windshield. Images reportedly of Abassi's vehicle show that the driver's side door was destroyed, but the rest of the vehicle shows very little damage. This indicates that the IED was a shaped charge with a very specific target. Pockmarks are visible on the rear driver's side door, possibly evidence that the charge contained projectiles designed to increase its lethality. On Shahriari's vehicle, no damage can be seen except several pockmarks on the hood and the windshield; one pockmark appears to line up with where the driver's head would be, suggesting that these might be from bullet rounds. Despite reports that an IED detonated targeting Shahriari's vehicle, the images available do not show any evidence of this. In both cases, the assailants reportedly used "sticky bombs" (IEDs attached to a magnet or strong adhesive) that can be easily attached to a vehicle. However, they are prone to fall off. It could be that the device fell off Shahriari's car and exploded but then the assailants followed up with gunshots to ensure the success of the attack. Early reports from Iranian media indicated that police fired at a Peugeot 206 fleeing the scene, but did not specify whether this occurred near the attack on Abassi or Shahriari. The vehicles purported to have belonged to Abassi and Shahriari match the description of a Peugeot 206. It is certainly possible that in the confusion of the moment, police fired on Shahriari's Peugeot, which could explain the apparent bullet holes in the windshield. Later reports do not mention gunshots or the fact that any of the assailants were in a vehicle; all reports indicate that they traveled on motorcycle. The origin of the apparent bullet holes in the front of Shahriari's vehicle remains unclear and certainly warrants further investigation. Regardless, details of the operation revealed so far indicate that the teams of assailants (two separate teams likely carried out the attacks, given the distance and timing involved) were fairly well trained. The groups carried out quick attacks from the backs of motorcycles — engaging their targets, delivering the IEDs, detonating them and then fleeing in a matter of seconds without getting caught (no arrests have been announced as of publication). Such precision requires planning and practice — the hallmarks of a well-trained group of assailants carrying out a very deliberate attack. The attackers could be deliberate because their targets were vulnerable to pre-operational surveillance. Both scientists appear to have had fairly high profiles in Iran's nuclear and defense communities, making them easy to identify and track. The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akhbar Salehi, told Iranian press on Nov. 29 that Shahriari was a "student" of his and was "in charge of one of the great projects" at Iran's Atomic Energy Agency — the agency responsible for Iran's uranium enrichment program, which the West suspects is being used to develop nuclear weapons though Iran insists it is for civilian nuclear power. The hardline Rajanews reported that Shahriari was the head of a project that was developing the technology to design a nuclear reactor core, and a Turkish television correspondent reported that Shahriari was awarded the title of Iran's most important professor in 2007. Abassi, age 52, was named under U.N. Security Council sanctions under Resolution 1747 in March 2007 for being a senior scientist for Iran's defense ministry and armed forces. Abassi has also been a member of the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps since its inception in 1979. Both men were members of a consortium of Middle Eastern scientists called Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (known as SESAME) — as was Massoud Ali-Mohammadi, an Iranian scientist killed by an IED in Tehran in January. Certainly there are obvious similarities between the Mohammadi attack and the Nov. 29 attacks, but there are also important differences. First, the attack against Mohammadi involved a far less discriminating IED that caused far more collateral damage than the attacks against Abassi and Shahriari. The bomb targeting Mohammadi was planted on the street instead of directly on the car, requiring a larger, less specifically shaped charge to ensure success. More specifically targeted attacks indicate a more expert bomb-maker, and more precise attacks indicate overall more discriminating and deliberate assassins. Second, Mohammadi does not appear to have been as close to Iran's nuclear program and defense industries as Shariari and Abassi were. Mohammadi was even reported to have supported Iranian opposition leader and "Green movement" candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi. Such political affiliations contrast starkly with Abassi's membership in the staunchly pro-regime IRGC. The seemingly high level of professionalism in the Nov. 29 attacks and the target choice of individuals ostensibly very close to the Iranian regime indicate that the attacks were assassinations that hit closer to home than Tehran is likely accustomed.

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