Who Killed Massoud Ali Mohammadi?

– and why?

by , January 15, 2010

Editor’s note: “Behind the Headlines” will return Wednesday.

Imagine the following scenario: The chief executive of a foreign country decides to conduct terrorist operations inside U.S. territory, and signs a “presidential finding” to that effect. Furthermore, that “finding” authorizes the foreign government’s agents to engage in “defensive lethal action,” i.e. assassinations. And what if, shortly after this information has been leaked to the public, prominent US government officials and even a nuclear scientist or two are assassinated, kidnapped, or otherwise targeted by mysterious terrorists, with no one taking “credit” for these actions? 

How long before the United States military turned that country into a pile of molten rock and charred debris?  

I give it about fifteen minutes, max.  

However, if that chief executive happened to be an American president, and if the “finding” was approved by Democratic congressonal leaders, and if the targets of these assassinations and kidnappings were Iranian – well, then, it isn’t terrorism, now is it – since nothing we do is ever so characterized, no matter how accurate such a description may be.  

The assassination of Massoud Ali Mohammadi, a prominent Iranian nuclear physicist, had all the earmarks of a state agency behind it: he was killed in an explosion set off by a sophisticated remote-controlled device attached to the underside of a motorbike parked outside his home. However, a closer look shows that the killing, if it was carried out by the US or its agents, doesn’t fit the expected pattern.  

Looking at Mohammadi’s list of publications, it appears he was an astrophysicist, and not the sort one would normally associate with Iran’s nuclear program, but that may be neither here nor there. After all, our own CIA has said, “with high confidence,” [.pdf] that Iran abandoned its nuclear weapons program in 2003, and hasn’t re-started it – so the idea that this is an attempt to set back Iran’s drive for nukes is flat out wrong, because there are no Iranian nukes and little likelihood of them any time soon.  

So there must have been another reason for the targeting of Mohammadi in particular, and both the timing and the politics bear this out. The killing comes at a time when Iranian regime is threatened by an extensive popular upsurge, the “Green” movement, led by former presidential candidate Mir Hossein Moussavi, made manifest in street demonstrations which the government has reacted to with vicious violence. In spite of the regime’s efforts to portray Mohammadi as one of their own, he was in fact a supporter of Moussavi: he was one of the signatories of a statement issued by Mossavi’s academic supporters. He was, in short, clearly aligned with the “Greens,” although not an activist type. 

Of course, we don’t know who killed Mohammadi, although Tehran has variously accused the US, the Israelis, Iranian royalists, and the neo-Marxist Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) of being behind the bombing. Certainly any of these are credible suspects, but the instrument of the assassination is less important than the motivation or intent behind it, and in any case the question of whodunit could be at least partially illuminated if we ask why it was done. 

Before we can answer that question, however, we need to go back and look at the context, including the rationale for and motivation behind that presidential “finding.” Issued in the final months of the Bush administration, the finding was an attempt to get around military and congressional opposition to the idea of a direct attack on Iran by the US. The joint chiefs were horrified by the prospect and made their opposition plain, and the Democratic-controlled Congress was none too enthusiastic about ginning up another war when we were already knee-deep in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hardliners in the Bush administration, however, were not content to let it go at that, naturally, and so President Bush, in this finding, authorized a covert campaign dedicated to “regime change” — including those “defensive lethal actions” that sound like assassinations to me.  

The idea was to destabilize the Iranian “prison house of nations” by forging links with underground secessionist and dissident organizations, such as the Sunni terrorist group operating in Baluchistan on the border with Pakistan. There was also a lot of agitation, at the time, among neoconservatives to rehabilitate the MEK, which has been classified by the US State Department as an officially-designated terrorist organization, and use them to effect “regime change” in Iran. Given MEK’s degree of support amongst the then-dominant neocons inside the administration, as well as in Congress, can there be much doubt MEK got in on the $400 million gravy train?  

Forced to abandon plans for striking Iran, the Bush administration took the route of subversion, and set the stage for a series of provocations aimed at “regime change.” Given the complicity of the Democrats in this scheme, there is no reason to assume the program stopped with the ascension of Obama. Indeed, there is every reason to think the program may have even been accelerated, given the reluctance with which the present administration would contemplate a frontal assault on Tehran. War may be out of the question, for the moment, but what about a revolution? Indeed, Team Obama have recently been more effusive with their open support for the Iranian “Greens,” and US government support for the Moussavi movement is all but official. Yet Mohammadi was himself a Green supporter, and therefore his execution may be seen as the act of some entity that aims at blocking this indirect means of dealing with the Iranians. 

On the one hand, there is plenty of speculation revolving around the possibility that the Iranians took out Mohammadi themselves, as a warning to dissidents, particularly dissident scientists. However, this seems highly improbable: at a  time when Tehran is touting its technological prowess as a point of pride in its conflict with the West, this they-did-it-to-themselves scenario makes little sense.  

On the other hand, there are those who have every interest in blocking any and all attempts to deal with Iran relatively peacefully, i.e. short of a full-scale frontal military assault. Israel has made plain its desire to strike at Iran, or have the US do it for them, and Israel’s lobby in the U.S. is busy beating the drums for war.

What points toward the Israelis in this instance is Mohammadi’s Green affiliation: an Associated Press video report shows pro-Green mourners at Mohammadi’s funeral procession, hailing him as a martyr and denouncing the Mossad. Inside Iran, the political effect of the assassination is to blur the ideological distinctions between the Greens and their opponents in the government — and blunt the US administration’s covert effort to carry out “regime change” short of an invasion.  

The Israelis are well aware that the Greens are just as nationalist and intransigent on the subject of Iran’s right to pursue nuclear research as the hardliners. They therefore have every interest in destabilizing this movement, sowing fear among prominent Green supporters – such as Mohammadi’s academic colleagues – and also spreading the rumor that domestic assassins struck him due to his support for Moussavi. Deprived of the Holocaust-denying fire-breathing President Ahmadinejad as the public face of the Iranian government, and with the Greens in power, the Israelis would have a much harder time convincing their American sponsors Iran represents a danger to the world and must be stopped at all costs.  

The Israelis have long utilized assassination as a tool in their bag of tricks, and do so semi-openly: what other intelligence agency has an entire special section devoted to taking out its enemies? Mohammadi is the third prominent Iranian scientist to have met with foul play in the past year or so – see here, and here – and the idea that the Israelis are behind it was not only given voice by the Iranians, but also by the Stratfor research organization, which is said to have ties with Israeli intelligence.  

Who killed Mohammadi? We don’t know, and may never know for sure: but all indications point to Israel, and it’s no wonder that even Debka, the Israeli web site with links to Mossad, practically claimed “credit” for the act on Tel Aviv’s behalf.  

What’s interesting is that this explanation for Mohammadi’s unsightly end underscores the role played by Israel in the geopolitics of the Middle East, as not only Iran’s chief adversary in the region but also as a subverter of American policy and interests. The Iranians, with their cartoon-version worldview of the US and Israel as two heads of the same hydra-headed monster, are too simplistic by far: when it comes to the Middle East, Israel is working to undermine not only Tehran but also Washington – and anyone who gets in the way of their agenda.

Read more by Justin Raimondo