A prominent Iranian physicist was killed yesterday by a bomb detonated outside his Tehran home, prompting an immediate accusation by Iran that the killing was masterminded by Israel and the US to derail the Islamic Republic's nuclear programme.
By last night however, the death of Dr Massoud Ali Mohammadi at the hands of the intelligence agencies of "arrogant powers" – as Iran calls its Western enemies – looked less the open and shut case that Tehran and the official Iranian media were claiming.
Initially described as a "devoted revolutionary" who was "martyred" by Iran's foreign enemies, Dr Mohammadi, it later emerged, lent support to the campaign of opposition leader Mirhossein Mousavi in last June's presidential elections and complained publicly about the treatment of students in the protest movement. The disclosure fed speculation that his death was carried out internally as a lesson to intimidate critics of the regime.
A government statement claimed that the killing by a booby-trapped motorbike which exploded outside the scientist's home in a suburb of the capital as he left for work, was carried out by "American spying and intelligence agents", a claim the US State Department said was "absurd".
A professor of elementary particle physics at the University of Tehran rather than a nuclear physicist, Dr Mohammadi is unlikely to have had even an unofficial role in the country's controversial atomic programme. His page on the university website lists publications in English in international scientific journals on such topics as two-dimensional gravity and the black hole, or complex mathematical analytical issues.
University officials said he was not political either. But the mystery deepened with the claim by an opposition website Jaras, that the 50-year-old professor's name had appeared on a list of hundreds of academic supporters of Mr Mousavi, the politician who challenged President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the disputed elections and went on to become the figurehead for the "green" movement.
The reformist camp has garnered immense popular support and is still defying the authorities despite a fiercely repressive clampdown. Hardliners have demanded the execution of opposition leaders but analysts said an assassination would represent a dramatic escalation in the internal crisis.
"If this was an act of violence perpetrated by either the regime or its supporters, then it is intended to intimidate other academics who have supported the opposition," said Dr Suzanne Maloney, senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "There is certainly a pattern in Iran of trying to frighten the more outspoken academics and we have been seeing more public outcry in recent weeks from intellectuals objecting to the treatment of detained students. But typically Iran does not use aggressive violence in this way, rather academics are forced out of their jobs or students prevented from registering for courses. If this bombing is linked then it would be a dramatic escalation".
Dr Maloney suggested the possibility that armed groups with links to, but not directly under the control of, the Iranian security services may have carried out the attack in support of the beleaguered regime. A precedent can be traced to the early 1990s which is the last time that the reform movement was so buoyant.
"A parallel would be the assassination of writers, political activists and other dissidents in the 1990s. It was a campaign to demonstrate to others that a price would be paid for any kind of opposition activity" said Dr Maloney. "But the great fear of many in the opposition now is that there will be a breakdown in any semblance of law and order and that Iran will move back to the kind of civil war and mass bombing campaigns that marked the early years of the revolution".
Scores of protesters and detainees have died since the June elections according to Amnesty International. Bomb attacks – especially in the capital – are, however, rare.
Death in Iran: Political martyrs
* Politically motivated killings marked the early years of the Islamic regime. Thousands of political prisoners were executed in the immediate aftermath of the 1979 revolution. But between 1988 and 1998, unknown numbers of dissidents, writers, intellectuals and critics of the regime were serially murdered, many poisoned in secret their deaths registered as "cardiac arrest". Others were hunted down while living abroad including the popular singer Fereydoun Farrokhzad who was beheaded and had his tongue cut out. In one famous incident 21 writers narrowly escaped death while attending a conference when their tour bus veered off towards a cliff as the driver jumped out.
* In the autumn of 1998, at least six leading intellectuals, writers, doctors, poets or journalists were savagely murdered as part of a campaign to stifle internal dissent. Among the most shocking were the killings of Dariush Farouhar, 70, a nationalist politician who had served as a minister, and his wife Parveneh. Their mutilated bodies were found in their Tehran home. He had been stabbed 25 time, she, 25 times. The authorities blamed foreign agents. Amid public outcry the Ministry of Intelligence admitted in 1999 that its own agents had carried out chain murders but it is believed that hitmen were scapegoated while the orders came from the top of the hardline clerical hierarchy.Reuse content