Iran blames U.S., Israel in bombing death of physicist Massoud Ali-Mohammadi

By Thomas Erdbrink and William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 13, 2010

TEHRAN -- Iran vowed revenge Tuesday after a remote-controlled bomb planted on a motorcycle killed an Iranian scientist outside his home in an attack that authorities variously blamed on the United States, Israel and "anti-revolutionary" agents.

Massoud Ali-Mohammadi, 50, a physics professor at Tehran University, represented Iran on an unusual regional project in which its archenemy, Israel, also participates. No motive for the killing was immediately established, however, and it was not known whether his role in the project had any connection with the attack.

Ali-Mohammadi was killed as he left his house in north Tehran. A booby-trapped motorcycle exploded, shattering windows in nearby buildings.

"On one hand, spies and intelligence agents of the American government kidnap Iranian citizens in third countries and transfer them to America, and on the other hand, their treacherous agents inside Iran assassinate a citizen and scientist," the Iranian government said in a statement. "The criminal perpetrators of this crime should know that there is no escape from the claws of justice, and sooner or later the avenging hands of the children of the Iranian nation will clutch their throats."

The United States rejected the allegations. "Those accusations are absurd," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters. Said a U.S. official briefed on the incident: "Any suggestion that the CIA played a role here is flat wrong." The Israeli government had no immediate comment.

The bombing comes amid tensions between the Iranian government and a political opposition movement as well as international pressure over Iran's nuclear program. Tehran says the program is intended to produce energy, but the United States suspects its ultimate goal is to build nuclear weapons.

Iranian news media and officials described Ali-Mohammadi as a nuclear physicist, while academics in Iran and abroad said he specialized in particle and theoretical physics and had no apparent connection with nuclear physics. Tehran University listed him as a professor of elementary particle physics. The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, which controls the country's nuclear program, said he was not affiliated with the agency.

The regional research project in which Ali-Mohammadi participated, along with other scientists from Iran, Israel and various Middle Eastern countries, is called Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East, or SESAME. It is based in Jordan and operates under United Nations auspices. Iranian and foreign scientists said the project has applications in industry, medicine, nanotechnology and other fields unrelated to nuclear power.

The Iranian and Israeli participation in the project is unusual because the two countries have had no ties since the 1979 Islamic revolution, and Iran refuses to recognize the Israeli government. Palestinian scientists also participate in the SESAME project, whose last meeting was held in November in Jordan.

An Israeli representative, Eliezer Rabinovici, director of the Institute for Advanced Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said he talked to Ali-Mohammadi during an informal group meeting. "We did not discuss politics or nuclear issues, as our project is not connected to nuclear physics," Rabinovici said.

He said he had "no idea whatsoever" why Ali-Mohammadi was killed.

An Iranian scientist involved in the project strongly denied that there had been any direct meetings between his delegation and the Israelis. "They are present in the same room, but there are no direct meetings," said Javad Rahighi, a nuclear researcher who teaches experimental physics and serves as vice chairman of SESAME's international training program. "We are all shocked," he said in a telephone interview. "I couldn't imagine anybody wanting to kill him. He was a scientist, nothing more."

Colleagues who worked closely with Ali-Mohammadi said he was a serious scientist who had no interest in politics. Yet both the government and the opposition claimed him as a supporter. The pro-government Jahan News Web site described him as "a firm believer in the Islamic system," while a dissident site published a letter that Ali-Mohammadi and 419 other scientists signed last year in support of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi.

Branigin reported from Washington. Staff writer Joby Warrick in Washington and special correspondents Kay Armin Serjoie in Tehran and Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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