Iran claims cyber warfare expert not assassinated, as Israel remains cagey over involvement

Mojtaba Ahmadi is the latest in a string of Iranian commanders and scientists to meet an untimely end

Israel has said it was “not necessarily” involved in the death of the head of Iranian cyber warfare, Mojtaba Ahmadi. He was killed north of Tehran on Saturday or early this week, becoming the latest in a string of Iranian nuclear and war effort experts to meet an untimely end.

“The fact that a cyber commander or this or that scientist was wiped out or killed in this or that assassination does not necessarily mean that Israel’s hand is in the matter,” Science and Technology Minister – and former head of Israel’s internal security agency, the Shin Bet – Yaacov Peri told Israel Radio. “At the same time, it’s definitely the type of operation that can slow the danger in the Iranian issue both in the nuclear realm and in the realm of cyber.”

But, he added, the death of the head of the Cyber Warfare Command of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard would not necessarily have a lasting impact since a replacement would be found.

Details of the death, including its precise timing, remain shrouded in mystery. The Iranian Albarz website reported that Mr Ahmadi was found dead in a wooded area near Karaj, northwest of Tehran and quoted a witness saying he had been shot. He was last seen on Saturday.

A statement on the website of the Revolutionary Guard denied the death was an assassination, terming it instead a “horrific incident” that was being investigated.

Working in nuclear development or advanced warfare systems has proven a dangerous job in Iran. Five Iranian nuclear scientists as well as the country’s ballistic missile programme director have been assassinated since 2007, with Iran blaming Israel. Israel has in the past declined comment on whether it is involved, yet sometimes has voiced satisfaction with the results.

Israel believes Iran, its arch-foe and main rival for primacy in the region, is working on a nuclear bomb that could threaten its existence or at least increase Iran’s power dramatically.

The election of the more moderate Iranian President, Hasan Rouhani, has done nothing to alleviate Israel’s worries and the Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu pointedly warned the international community during an address at the UN on Tuesday that Iran is still working towards a nuclear bomb and that Israel would stop it even if it has to act alone.

At least four of the slain Iranian scientists were ambushed with a magnetic bomb affixed to their vehicle as they commuted to work, according to press reports. In January 2012, Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan, an expert on uranium enrichment, was killed by a bomb affixed by a motorcyclist. Scientist Darush Rezaei-Nejad was killed by shots fired from a motorcycle a year earlier. The country’s top physicist, Majid Shahriari, was killed by a magnetised bomb in October 2010.

Last year US officials said Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency was providing an Iranian opposition group, the People’s Mujahideen of Iran, with logistical and financial support to assassinate the scientists.

Israeli news reports indicated that Israel will not soften the tone on Iran following Mr Netanyahu’s speech. Even as the United States begins to conduct talks with Iran over its nuclear programme, Israel will continue to say that Iran is trying to dupe the international community.

But not all Israeli commentators are comfortable with the strident approach Mr Netanyahu has adopted, including calling for heightening sanctions.

“If Rouhani does show concrete compromise, I believe imposing more sanctions could be detrimental,” Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born Israeli, who is one of the country’s leading specialists on Iran, wrote on his website. “There should be a reciprocal system whereupon for each concrete compromise, Iran is rewarded, not punished.”

Mr Javedanfar took exception to Mr Netanyahu’s terming during his UN speech of Mr Rouhani as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” saying  that “in Iranian culture comparing someone to an animal in any way is deeply offensive.”

Mr Javedanfar concludes: “Israel has a very legitimate case against the Iranian regime’s nuclear programme – it is just unfortunate Netanyahu has to present it.”

Killer rivalry? The experts who have lost their lives

Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan Nuclear scientist in Tehran – killed, January 2012.

Majid Shahriari Senior Iranian nuclear physicist – killed by a bomb attached to his car, November 2010; Iran blamed the West.

Masoud Alimohammodi Particle physicist – killed by a bomb strapped to a motorcycle, January 2010.

Shahram Amiri Nuclear scientist – disappeared, October 2009; Iran blames the US.

Ali Reza Asghari General of the Islamic Revolutionary Republican Guards Corps and Cabinet Minister – kidnapped, February 2007; widely reported to have been taken by Mossad.

Hamid Hajizadeh Teacher and poet – stabbed to death alongside his son, September 1998.

Hussein Baraxandeh Engineer and close aide of the Iranian revolutionary, Dr Ali Shariati – disappeared and found dead the next day, January 1995; initial cause of death was claimed to be heart problems but was later confirmed as suffocation.