Part 5: Assassinations of Iran Nuclear Scientists

On November 27, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a prominent nuclear scientist, was assassinated in a roadside attack about 40 miles east of Tehran. He was the fifth nuclear scientist killed since 2010. Iran usually blamed Israel, sometimes invoking the United States and often their local agents. Historically, Israel has not claimed responsibility for assassinations. But both countries have reportedly waged a covert campaign to sabotage Iran’s controversial nuclear program.

Related Material: “Israeli Campaign to Stop Iran's Nuclear Program


Timeline of Assassinations

Jan. 12, 2010: Masoud Ali Mohammadi, a physics professor at Tehran University, was killed by a remote-controlled bomb planted on a motorcycle. The device detonated as he left home in northern Tehran to go to work. The government described Ali Mohammadi as a nuclear scientist but said he did not work for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. State media blamed Israel and the United States for the assassination.

In January 2011, Iran said it had arrested 10 of its own citizens in connection with the hit. It claimed that they worked for the Mossad. In August 2011, Majid Jamali Fashi was sentenced to death.


Nov. 29. 2010: Professor Majid Shariari, a member of the nuclear engineering faculty at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, was killed in his car on his way to work. His wife was wounded in the blast. Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said that Shariari was involved in one of the country’s biggest nuclear projects but did not elaborate.

Accounts of the assassination varied. A Western intelligence expert said that an explosive was planted on the vehicle beforehand and detonated remotely. Iranian media reported that men on motorbikes attached bombs to cars belonging to Shariari and another scientist, Fereydoon Abbasi Davani, on the same day. Abbasi Davani, an advisor to the Defense Ministry and a professor at Imam Hossein University, and his wife were injured in a separate blast. Local media described Abbasi Davani as one of Iran’s few specialists who could separate isotopes, a key step in producing enriched uranium for nuclear energy or to create fuel for a nuclear weapon. Abbasi Davani was sanctioned by the United Nations in 2007 for involvement in nuclear or ballistic missile research. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad blamed the United States and Israel for the attacks.


July 23, 2011: Darioush Rezaeinejad, an electrical engineer working at a national security research facility, was killed by two gunmen on a motorcycle in Tehran. State media initially identified the man as Darious Rezaei, a physics professor. Hours later, state media backtracked and said the victim was Darioush Rezaeinejad, an electronics student. Deputy Interior Minister Safarali Baratloo claimed that he was not involved in the nuclear program. But a foreign government official and a former U.N. nuclear inspector alleged that Rezaeinejad was working on high-voltage switches, parts necessary to start explosions needed to trigger a nuclear warhead. Iran blamed the United States and Israel for the assassination.


Jan. 11, 2012: Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, a chemical engineering graduate, was killed after two people on a motorbike placed a bomb on his car in northern Tehran. Roshan and the driver died, and at least two other people at the scene were reportedly injured. Iran identified Ahmadi Roshan as a supervisor at the Natanz Uranium Enrichment facility. It held Israel and the United States responsible for the killing. “The bomb was a magnetic one and the same as the ones previously used for the assassination of the scientists, and the work of the Zionists [Israelis]," deputy Tehran governor Safarali Baratloo claimed.

In October 2017, Iran sentenced a suspect to death for allegedly providing information to the Mossad about 30 key figures working on research, military and nuclear projects, including Shariari and Ali Mohammadi.


Nov. 27, 2020: Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a prominent nuclear scientist, was assassinated in a roadside attack about 40 miles east of Tehran. Western and Israeli intelligence had long suspected that Fakhrizadeh was the father of Iran’s covert nuclear weapons program. He was often compared to J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the American atomic bomb. He kept a low profile for most of his career. His name was not widely known even in Iran until he was sanctioned by the United Nations in 2007 and the United States in 2008. 

Details on the attack varied. Iran’s defense ministry initially reported that several gunmen opened fire on Fakhrizadeh’s car, but Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, later said that that “electronic equipment” triggered by remote control killed the scientist. 

Iran blamed the killing on Israel. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif condemned the killing as terrorism. “This cowardice—with serious indications of Israeli role—shows desperate warmongering of perpetrators,” he tweeted. On November 30, Israeli Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen told local radio that he did not know who was behind the raid. But a senior U.S. administration official told CNN that Israel was responsible.


More in this series: