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Nuke and Dagger

A brief history of spies, plots, and mysterious deaths surrounding Iran’s nuclear program

Nathan Thrall
January 21, 2010
Iran’s news service distributed this image of what it said was a new ground-to-ground missile being test fired on November 12, 2008.(Fars News Agency/AFP/Getty Images)
Iran’s news service distributed this image of what it said was a new ground-to-ground missile being test fired on November 12, 2008.(Fars News Agency/AFP/Getty Images)

Shortly before 8 a.m. on Tuesday, January 12, University of Tehran physics professor Masoud Ali-Mohammadi was killed by a bomb affixed to a motorcycle parked outside his home. Websites linked to Iran’s reformist movement suggested the attack was orchestrated by state security forces or their allies, including Lebanese Hezbollah and a new group, the Battalion of Suicide, which in the weeks preceding the assassination had warned that it would take matters into its own hands if the judiciary did not punish those “who have insulted Islam [and] Ayatollahs Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei.” But Iran’s foreign ministry and state-owned media named other suspects: they described Ali-Mohammadi as a nuclear scientist and blamed the attack on the United States and Israel. Iran’s interior minister promised to exact vengeance on the Zionists, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said “the manner of bomb planting shows a Zionist style.”

Whether Ali-Mohammadi was killed by Iranian hardliners or Western or Israeli agents—or neither—his is the most recent in a long line of strange and unexplained deaths befalling those with real or imagined connections to Iran’s nuclear program. The list is a butcher’s bill of murders, explosions, kidnappings, and other incidents, most of which have been tied, with varying degrees of plausibility, to either Iranian officials or Western intelligence agencies. Here, a partial accounting of the last decade’s espionage, counterespionage, and mysterious deaths:

February 2000: In Operation Merlin, the United States secretly supplies Iran with flawed nuclear blueprints, but the plan backfires when the conduit, a Russian scientist on the CIA’s payroll, warns the Iranians, who then use what is not flawed in the blueprints to advance their nuclear program.

July 11, 2000: Ten Iranian Jews are convicted of spying for Israel.

July 10, 2001: The father of Iran’s missile program, Col. Ali Mahmoudi Mimand, is found dead in his office.

December 23, 2002: A plane carrying 44 people, most of them Russian and Ukranian aeronautical engineers, crashes on its way to Isfahan, Iran, the site of a site of a nuclear research facility.

February 19, 2003: A military plane crashes during heavy winds in Iran’s Kerman Province, killing 302 people. The passengers were members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. The Revolutionary Guard encircles the area and bars journalists from the crash site. Press reports note that U.S.-imposed sanctions have forced Iran to use aging planes.

2004: According to New York Times reporter James Risen, a CIA officer inadvertently sends information identifying nearly all of the agency’s assets in Iran to a single Iranian on the CIA’s payroll. “The data could be used to identify virtually every spy the CIA had inside Iran. Mistake piled on mistake,” Risen writes in his book State of War. “As the CIA later learned, the Iranian who received the download was actually a double agent. The agent quickly turned the data over to Iranian security officials, and it enabled them to ‘roll up’ the CIA’s agent network throughout Iran.”

December 22, 2004: Iran announces that more than 10 men have been arrested over the past nine months and accused of spying for the United States and Israel.

July 2005: U.S. intelligence officials reveal the contents of a computer thought to have belonged to a nuclear scientist employed by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. The computer was reportedly delivered to German intelligence in late 2003 by a former colonel in the Shah’s army.

January 9, 2006: A small military jet crashes near the Turkish border in northwestern Iran, killing 13 people, including General Ahmad Kazemi, commander of the ground forces of the Revolutionary Guard, and 10 other Guard officers.

February 2006-March 2007: According Ronen Bergman, senior security and intelligence correspondent for Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth, “at least three (and if exiled oppositionists are to be believed, four) planes” operated by the Revolutionary Guard crash in Iran “while carrying personnel connected with the security of the nuclear project.”

April 2006: Two transformers explode at Iran’s nuclear enrichment facility at Natanz, destroying 50 nearby centrifuges. The transformers, acquired from members of A.Q. Khan’s network, are believed to have been sabotaged by three associates of Khan—Friedrich Tinner and his sons, Urs and Marco, who, according to Bush administration officials, received as much as $10 million from the CIA in return for countering nuclear programs in Iran and Libya and for helping to undo Khan’s network.

January 2007: Iranian engineers discover that some insulation units purchased from Europe that are used in connections between centrifuges are unusable.

January 18, 2007: A senior Iranian nuclear physicist working at the uranium enrichment facility at Isfahan, Ardeshir Hosseinpour, is found dead in his apartment. Some publications report an explosion in his laboratory. A report by STRATFOR, a private intelligence firm publishing geopolitical risk analysis, says he was assassinated by the Mossad.

February 2007: Iran’s former deputy defense minister, Gen. Ali Reza Asgari, disappears from his hotel in Istanbul. Asgari is widely reported to have defected. The CIA refers to its program to persuade key Iranian officials to defect as “the brain drain.” Iran’s police chief says Asgari was kidnapped by Western intelligence services. Asgari allegedly reveals Iranian financing of Syria’s nuclear program.

February 14, 2007: A car explodes in front of a bus carrying members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Eighteen members of the Guard are killed. Jundullah, a Sunni group based in Iran’s southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchistan, claims responsibility. According to Fred Burton, a former U.S. State Department counter-terrorism official, former CIA agent Robert Baer, Pakistan’s former army chief, and an unnamed, high-ranking CIA official, the United States is supporting separatist groups in Iran to destabilize the regime. U.S. officials tell ABC News that American intelligence officers advise Jundullah. The group sets off more attacks targeting the Revolutionary Guard, including twin bombings that kill five Guard commanders on October 18, 2009, the day before Iran is set to hold nuclear talks with the West.

March 2007: Former FBI agent Robert Levinson disappears from Kish Island, Iran, where he allegedly met Dawud Salahuddin, an African-American convert to Islam who once worked as a security guard at an Iranian diplomatic office in Washington. In 1980, Salahuddin fled to Iran after murdering Iranian dissident Ali Akbar Tabatabai at his home in Bethesda, Maryland.

April 2007: Iran’s former nuclear negotiator, Hossein Mousavian, is arrested by Iranian authorities and charged with spying for the British. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calls Moussavian a spy in November 2007; later that month, he is cleared of wrongdoing.

July 25, 2007: Fifteen Syrians and 10 Iranian die in an explosion at al-Safir, Syria. The victims were reportedly attempting to mount a warhead with VX nerve gas onto a Scud missile. According to Ronen Bergman of Yedioth Ahronoth, an American intelligence estimate puts the total number of casualties at 200. Bergman reports that a senior Israeli minister tells him with a wink that the explosion was a “wonderful mishap.”

September 6, 2007: Operation Orchard, the Israeli raid on a nuclear facility in Deir ez-Zor, Syria. Hans Ruehle, a former high-level German defense official, writes in the Swiss daily Neue Zuercher Zeitung that Iran financed the Syrian nuclear reactor in Deir ez-Zor. Several newspapers report that Iran’s former deputy defense minister, Ali Reza Asgari, provided the West with information critical to the raid.

June 2008: Iran arrests 7 Baha’i accused of spying for Israel.

November 2008: Ali Ashtari, an alleged spy for Israel who supplied Iran’s Revolutionary Guard with contaminated and defective electronic equipment, is hanged in Iran.

November 2008: Iran announces it has arrested three members of its Basij militia who it says were working as Israeli spies.

Late May or Early June 2009: Shahram Amiri, a nuclear scientist employed by Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, disappears from Saudi Arabia during the hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage. Iran accuses the United States and Saudi Arabia of kidnapping him.

August 2009: Russian naval forces overtake a hijacked Russian ship suspected of carrying S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Syria or Iran. An investigation by Israeli journalist Ron Ben-Yishai suggests the ship may have contained arms that left Russia without the Kremlin’s knowledge.

September 2009: Saudi Arabia seeks to kill Russia’s sale of $750 million to $1 billion worth of S-300 surface-to-air missiles—which Iran could use to defend its nuclear facilities from aerial attack—by offering to purchase $2 to $7 billion in Russian weapons, including the more advanced S-400.

December 14, 2009: Iran announces that three U.S. citizens who entered the country illegally during a hiking trip will be tried for espionage. The previous week, a spokesperson for Iran’s Foreign Ministry had demanded the release of 11 Iranians it said were being held in the United States. The 11 include two men, both of them missing, that Iran has accused the United States of kidnapping—Iran’s former deputy defense minister, Ali Reza Asgari, and Shahram Amiri, a nuclear scientist employed by Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization—as well as Amir Hossein Ardebili, sentenced in Delaware to five years in prison for plotting to ship advanced missile guidance and fighter plane components to Iran.

January 12, 2010: University of Tehran physics professor Masoud Ali-Mohammadi is killed by an explosion outside his home. The assassination comes several days after an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Iranian opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi.

January 14, 2010: A roadside bomb explodes beside a convoy of Israeli diplomats traveling through the outskirts of Amman, Jordan. The Jerusalem Post reports that sources close to Jordan’s General Intelligence Department claim the explosives had been smuggled into the kingdom by Iranian diplomats seeking to avenge the death of Masoud Ali-Mohammadi.

Nathan Thrall is a contributing editor for Tablet Magazine and a member of the editorial staff of The New York Review of Books.

Nathan Thrall is a contributing editor for Tablet Magazine and a member of the editorial staff of The New York Review of Books.