Analysts believe Iran scientist death was a foreign hit

(Reuters) –  Western security agencies were most  likely behind the killing of an Iranian scientist in an operation that underlines the myriad complications in the  conflict over Iran’s nuclear programme, analysts say.

Darioush Rezaie

Darioush Rezaie, 35, a university lecturer, was shot dead by  gunmen in eastern Tehran on Saturday, the third murder of a  scientist since 2009. One was killed in a car bomb, the second  by a device detonated remotely.

The Iranian government’s responses to past such incidents  have appeared confused but the Rezaie case has surpassed  previous levels, with the authorities speaking in strikingly  different voices from the outset.

“Assassinations will continue to be a tool used in this  covert war. While it’s impossible to tell with certainty whether  Rezaie was an active nuclear scientist, his death appears to be  another episode in that war,” said London-based analyst Ghanem  Nuseibeh, founder of Cornerstone Global Associates.

“The Iranian narrative has been confused about Rezaie’s work  and this adds credence to the speculation that he has been  involved in the nuclear programme.”

When news of the shooting first came out, semi-official news  agency Mehr published information on Rezaie’s background which  indicated involvement in Iranian nuclear activities that have  brought international sanctions on the Tehran government.

But the report was then immediately withdrawn by Mehr and  Iran’s intelligence minister Heydar Moslehi and other officials  denied Rezaie had any links to the nuclear energy programme.

Then when parliament speaker Ali Larijani blamed the United  States and Israel in a speech broadcast live on state television  on Sunday, Moslehi said it was too early to tell.
“We have not found any trace of foreign spy services  involvement in Rezaie’s assassination case yet,” state  television quoted him as saying.

Other bodies involved in investigations would normally  include the Revolutionary Guards and the office of Supreme  Leader Ali Khamenei, and possibly others.

Analysts believe that Iran might wish to play down the    accusations of blame as the incident is embarrasing for its     security agencies and could become an issue in domestic    politics.

“I suspect, just based on what’s known in the Iranian media  reporting, that Rezaie was assassinated because of his  relationship to Iran’s nuclear program,” said Afshon Ostovar, an  Iran analyst based in Washington.

After the initial confusion, Ostovar said he detected “a PR  campaign to both downplay the impact of his death on Iran’s  nuclear program and to discredit any sense of legitimacy of the  assassination”.

Several analysts said they believed the killing to have been  carried out by U.S. or Israeli agents.

Both countries have said they are prepared to take military  action to stop the Islamic Republic becoming a nuclear power.  They fear Iran’s uranium enrichment programme is designed to  take Tehran to the point where it can quickly put together  atomic weapons if it wanted to, although Tehran insists the  programme is for peaceful purposes. A U.S. spokeswoman denied any U.S. involvement.

“It’s frequent practice for Tehran to accuse the West for    these kinds of incidents, and we hope that Tehran is not    planning to use this incident to distract attention from what it   needs to do, which is to come back into compliance with    international obligations,” State Department spokeswoman    Victoria Nuland told a press briefing. Asked about Israel’s response to the accusations, Defence  Minister Ehud Barak said on Sunday: “It’s not responding”.

Despite public infighting within the Iranian ruling  establishment, which has seen President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and  his supporters fall out of favour with Supreme Leader Ali  Khamenei, Western analysts see signs that Iran is pushing ahead  with plans to develop the means to develop nuclear warheads.

Last month Iran said it would shift production of  higher-grade uranium to an underground bunker and triple output  capacity. It also test-fired 14 missiles in one day including  some it says can reach Israel and U.S. bases in the region.

 IRAN, ISRAEL EYE ARAB SPRING    

The killing took place at a time when both Iran and Israel  are nervously watching the spate of popular protests that have  spread across the Middle East this year.

Some analysts in Iran have even suggested the assassinations  could be the work of elements inside the ruling system as a  warning to academics and officials who might be tempted to leak  information to foreign governments.

The Arab protests have so far they have failed to provoke a  return of Iranian opposition to the streets after massive  demonstrations over the reelection of Ahmadinejad in 2009.

But the stakes are high for Tehran in the conflict between  Tehran’s ally Syria and opposition protesters. The fall of  Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad could reignite the Iranian street.

For Israeli leaders the fall of ally Hosni Mubarak in Egypt  in February was a blow that raised the possibility of Arab  openings to Iran. That spurred debate in Israel on whether to  attempt a strike this year on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

But Assad’s troubles could result in the loss of an ally for  Iran, which Israel would see as a strategic victory.

Analysts say the protests may have diverted some Western  political attention from the Iranian nuclear question.

“To many, the Iranian issue is not on the front pages  because of the revolt sweeping the region,” said Theodore  Karasik, a Dubai-based security analyst. “But it’s clear Western  intelligence is penetrating Iran and hunting down individuals  involved supposedly in the nuclear programme.”

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