Mossad's murder machine claims another scientist's life in Israeli bid to stop Iran building a nuclear bomb

The two assassins arrived from nowhere as their victim was driving home with his wife. Trapped inside his car, he was hopelessly vulnerable as their motorcycles pulled alongside.

He would just have had time to notice their blacked-out visors before they opened fire, emptying round after round into his chest.

Nuclear scientist Darioush Rezaei died immediately. His wife was critically wounded and still in hospital days after the attack in north eastern Iran.

The hitmen? They vanished into the traffic fumes of the night.

This is a story of ruthless men playing for the highest stakes imaginable. Of secret agents from Israel’s intelligence service Mossad who will stop at  nothing to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

Should Iran succeed, Israel would be desperately vulnerable to attack — not least because Iran’s President Ahmadinejad has repeatedly threatened to erase the ‘Zionist entity’ from the map.

There’s also the danger of nuclear proliferation among Israel’s Arab neighbours. If Ahmadinejad gets hold of a nuclear weapon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others would immediately seek to do so as well, to prevent Iran from bullying them with its new-found power.

Israel’s response to the threat has been deadly.

Rezaei was assassinated because he was an expert on neutron transport, one of the key processes in making nuclear weapons. He joins a long list of Iranian nuclear scientists and engineers who are being systematically targeted by killers apparently dispatched by the Israeli intelligence agency.

While it is unlikely Mossad would send its own assassins into such a high-risk environment, they will have recruited locals and given them intensive training.

Last November, two senior Iranian scientists were attacked in different parts of the capital. Both victims were driving to work when men on motorbikes attached magnetised bombs to their cars as they were stuck in traffic.

These small explosives are known as ‘shaped charges’, designed to focus the blast at its target as a stream of molten metal travelling at 29,000 miles per hour. One bomb killed nuclear engineer Majid Shahriari, while missing his wife in the passenger seat.

In another part of town, nuclear engineer Dr Fereydoon Abbasi narrowly survived an identical attack. Dr Abbasi is an expert in the separation of isotopes, a crucial process in the manufacture of enriched uranium fuel, which has uses in both nuclear reactors and weapons.

In January, it was the turn of 50-year-old Masoud Ali-Mohammadi, who was killed near his north Tehran home by a remotely detonated bomb built into a motorcycle parked on the route he took to work each morning. The bomb blew Mohammadi’s car to pieces. 

Although his Western scientific colleagues claim that the dead man was  an expert in quantum mechanics rather than nuclear fission, it has since emerged that for 20 years he was a member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, the key government agency involved in developing Iran’s nuclear weapons.

The deaths follow a pattern that can be traced back to 2007, when Dr Ardeshir Hosseinpour, a scientist employed at the top-secret Istfahan nuclear plant, mysteriously died of radiation poisoning.

Of course, Israel denies any connection with these deaths. But intelligence experts are convinced Mossad is behind them, sometimes carrying out the killings in conjunction with like-minded intelligence agencies, including the CIA.

For the past five years, the CIA’s ‘Project Brain Drain’ has been trying to lure jobless Iranian science graduates to the U.S. in order to denude Iran of potential nuclear bomb makers. The CIA has also tried to entice the country’s more senior nuclear scientists to defect — but only half a dozen have done so.

Israel has never made a secret of its policy that those who harm it will be harmed in turn. Yet the killing of Iranian engineers and scientists in increasing numbers smacks of desperation.

The Israelis had hoped to persuade America to help them attack nuclear facilities in Iran, which are buried deep underground. But the U.S. does not wish to get involved in another war, and refused to supply Israel with high-tech bunker-penetrating bombs.

So, for now, Israel decided to delay Iran’s research programme using sabotage and the assassination of key scientific players. 

This tactic worked before when used against the leaders and bomb-makers of the militant Palestinian organisation Hamas. In this game, morality goes out the window, especially as it’s argued that the Iranian scientists know what their research is intended for.

Although the bombings and shootings are the most visible aspect of the Israeli campaign, a highly sophisticated sabotage programme is also under way. 

In some cases, this has involved Mossad creating phoney companies in Europe or Asia which supply Iranian procurement agencies with engineering components such as valves and switches that can be used for nuclear reactors — as well as bomb-making. These parts function as normal in the initial deliveries, so as to build Iranian confidence. But then the parts malfunction, as they have been deliberately engineered to.

A more sophisticated example of sabotage was the insertion last November of the Stuxnet computer worm into the operating systems of Iran’s nuclear facilities at Natanz and elsewhere.

None of Iran’s nuclear plants have connections to the internet, precisely to prevent a hostile power from corrupting their computers with what is called ‘malware’. 

But computer data can still be accessed and transferred using a humble USB memory stick. One was used to infect them with the virus engineered to enter just one type of computer — the industrial operating machines made by the German electronic giant Siemens.

Germany is by far Iran’s leading importer, and hundreds of German firms — including some of the very biggest — continue to collaborate with the country where 70 per cent of nationalised industry is owned by the Revolutionary Guard. The Stuxnet malware silently seized charge of the expensive Siemens systems, and either slowed down, or sped up the highly-engineered centrifuges used to enrich uranium.

About 1,000 of these sensitive devices broke down under such unusual pressure, setting back Iran’s nuclear ambitions by years.

This cyber-warfare, capable of disabling any number of computer operating systems controlling utilities, food distribution, air traffic and so on, is how major wars will be fought in future.

Experts say only one nation is capable of developing such a sophisticated weapon: the U.S., although the Russians recently paralysed Estonia through a computer-borne attack. 

So far, the combination of assassination and sabotage has enabled Meir Degan, the outgoing head of Mossad, and several of his predecessors, to take a more relaxed view of when Iran will achieve nuclear weapons capability.

Ultimately, they know that if all else fails, they can try to bomb the Iranian nuclear sites — with or without American help. 

Israel has undertaken such daring air raids before, but because of the deep underground nature of the nuclear sites and the huge distances between them, the operation would be fraught with risk.

In June 1981, the Israeli air force’s Operation Opera obliterated the Iraqi nuclear plant at Osirak, where Saddam Hussein was trying to produce plutonium. A year earlier, the Iraqi project’s chief scientist, Yahya El Mashad, had been lured to a hotel in Paris and clubbed to death. A prostitute who claimed to have heard the attack was killed in a hit-and-run traffic accident before she could testify.

More recently, Operation Orchard in December 2007 saw Israeli F-15 jets pulverize a remote site in Syria. Their target was a North Korean-built facility set up to produce weapons-grade plutonium, which had been bankrolled by Iran to the tune of $1??billion.

The Iranians hoped they could develop this technology covertly in another country without Israel finding out. They were wrong.

Prior to the operation, Mossad agents got into the London hotel room of a senior Syrian official, where they bugged his laptop.

This entire operation began after Iranian Deputy Defence Minister and Brigadier General Ali-Reza Asgari disappeared in Istanbul — his abduction, or defection,  giving the Israelis vital clues as to nuclear collaboration between Iran and Syria. He has never been seen since.
So can murder of this kind be justified? 

Israel will contend that what such men do could result in a nuclearised Middle East, and trigger a cataclysmic war. A few dead scientists and engineers are a price worth paying, goes the argument.

Only future historians will know if that was correct. (8.05.2011, Michael Burleigh)

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