Assasination of scientist marks restart of shooting war over Iranian nukes

Israel accused of motorcycle magnet-bombing that killed a fourth Iranian scientist

Another key Iranian nuclear scientist has been killed in what appears to be an increasingly overt fight over Iran's nuclear development program.

Ahmadi Roshan, a chemist who was director of Iran's primary uranium enrichment facility, was killed in traffic after two men on a motorcycle caught up to the car in which he was riding and attached at least one bomb to it using magnets, according to Iran's state TV news service.

A second person riding in the car was killed and a third was injured as was an 85-year-old bystander; none were identified by Iranian news sources.

The assassination comes just days after the U.N.'s nuclear-watchdog agency confirmed that Iran had begun enriching uranium to near-weapons-grade levels at a protected underground facility at Fordo in the mountainous Qom province, where it is protected by 300 feet of rock. Iranian officials told the International Atomic Energy Commission it has 3,000 centrifuges operating at Fordo, compared to the 8,000 running at its primary facility at Natanz.

The French Foreign Ministry, despite France's often-supportive stance toward Iran, called the facility "a new wave of provocation" that flouts U.N. resolutions calling on Iran to stop its efforts to develop nuclear weapons.

Sudden rash of "things happening…unnaturally"

Roshan is the fourth Iranian nuclear scientist murdered in what appears to be a two-year, increasingly violent covert campaign to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons – a campaign that has slowed but never stopped the effort.

Iran announced this week it had shifted much of the most sensitive uranium-enrichment work from vulnerable existing nuclear facilities to

The best-known, possibly most effective attack came from the Stuxnet virus, which had been customized specifically to attack the Windows-based software that controlled the high-energy centrifuges being used to isolate uranium at Iran's Bashehr nuclear development facility.

Iranian officials have accused both the U.S. and Israel of launching the malware attack. Israeli officials admitted once testing Stuxnet, which appeared in the wild in a different form as early as two years before the customized version was found to be attacking Bashehr.

The U.S. has never admitted any involvement with the virus. Both countries have denied being behind either Stuxnet or Duqu – a virus discovered in Iran in November as a possible next-generation version of Stuxnet, though one designed to steal data from industrial-control systems rather than take over and degrade their operation, as was Stuxnet.

Iranian officials claimed Israel's Mossad, the CIA and the British MI6 spy agencies are behind a series of "terrorism" attacks on targets related to the nuclear effort, including the murder of three other nuclear scientists since 2010.

Yesterday Israel's chief military commander told an Israeli parliamentary council 2012 would be a "critical year" for Iran, largely due to "things that happen to it unnaturally," according to the Associated Press.

Security experts predict the number of cyberattacks and cyberespionage incidents will skyrocket in 2012, even independent of the Iran conflict.

Iranian security official Safar Ali Baratloo was quoted in Iran's news service as saying the attack on Rohan was the work of Israelis.

"The magnetic bomb is of the same types already used to assassinate our scientists," according to AP.

A similar attack in Jan, 2010 killed Tehran University physics professor and nuclear-material refinement expert Masoud Ali Mohammadi in Tehran. In November, 2010 two simultaneous bomb attacks killed one nuclear scientist and wounded another, who was subsequently appointed head of Iran's atomic agency.

In July gunmen on motorcycles shot and killed Darioush Rezaeinejad, identified by Iranian news sites as an electronics student. He was identified by Western news sources as a specialist in the kind of high-voltage switch used to set off the explosions that trigger nuclear warheads.

In 2007 an Iranian nuclear scientist named Ardeshir Hassanpour died from what Iranian media said was accidental carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty space heater in his home.

U.S.-based security analysis firm Statfor claimed Hassanpour was killed by Mossad, making him the first nuclear scientist killed in the campaign to stop Iran's nukes.

French web site Intelligence Online claimed Iranian security killed Hassanpour because he was planning to flee the country. None of the three versions of his death have been substantiated.

Today's attack makes the 32-year-old Rohan – who specialized in building systems to isolate volatile gasses during the refinement of nuclear material – the sixth nuclear scientist to be attacked and either the fourth or fifth to be killed.

"Assassinations, military threats and political pressures ... The enemy insists on the tactic of creating fear to stop Iran's peaceful nuclear activities," Fars quoted lawmaker Javad Jahangirzadeh as saying in reaction to the blast.

Israel is chief Iran nuke opponent, but it has plenty of company

The U.S., Israel, the U.K. and other Western powers have steadily increased political, diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran during the past two years in an effort to persuade it to drop what they call an effort to develop nuclear weapons.

Iran has insisted its nuclear program is a peaceful effort to develop nuclear power, not nuclear weapons.

Israel has been particularly adamant in its opposition to the Iranian nuclear program just as it has campaigned against the nuclear ambitions of other Middle Eastern countries through the U.N. and other diplomatic channels.

It also opposed efforts by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to develop nuclear weapons that would enable him to dominate the region. Iraq's program ended after an Israeli bombing raid in 1981 that destroyed Iraq's Osirak plutonium-generating nuclear reactor at Tuwaitah. Hussein had claimed the facility was devoted to developing nuclear power plants.

In 2008, Israel reportedly tried to get U.S. support for a possible strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, though it is unclear how serious the attempt was.

"The atomic bombs which that reactor was capable of producing whether from enriched uranium or from plutonium, would be of the Hiroshima size. Thus a mortal danger to the people of Israel progressively arose." – Israeli government statement explaining 1981 raid on Iraq nuclear plant.

Successive Israeli governments have stuck to the position that the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Middle Eastern nation would be a critical threat to its own existence.

Turkey, among other Middle Eastern and Central Asian nations, has accused Israel of being a regional bully using its own presumed nuclear capability as a stick with which to control its neighbors.

Israel is widely assumed to possess nuclear weapons, largely acquired from the U.S., but has never confirmed their existence.

Iran's increasingly obvious threats

Iran has consistently claimed its nuclear program is peaceful and that it has no intention of producing nuclear weapons.

Nevertheless, as international pressure increased, Tehran responded by hardening its own position, implying last week Iran might create an instant oil shortage in the West by blockading the Strait of Hormuz that is the primary route through which tankers travel from Saudi Arabia to the ports of Western oil importers.

Security and oil-business experts doubt Iran really intends to block the Strait.

That doesn't stop Tehran from flexing muscles it could use to either block the Strait or, potentially, attack regional opponents including Israel, however.

In addition to its nuclear capabilities, Iran has a well-funded, largely successful years-long program to develop short-, medium- and long-range missiles, some of which could be used to deliver nuclear weapons.

Jan. 2 naval exercises designed to demonstrate its dominance of the Gulf of Oman Jan. 2, Iran successfully test-fired new versions of its ship-to-shore and a surface-to-surface missiles, both of which have a range of 125 miles. Both could be used to enforce an Iranian decision to close the Straits of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of the world's oil moves via supertanker, as a way to counter military or political pressure from the West.

In 2009 Iran test-fired a longer-range missile, the Seijil-2, which is said to have a range of 1,200 miles.

Jerusalem is 970 miles from Tehran.

Tit-for-tat accusations, attacks

In a move likely to be an attempt at retaliation, Iranian courts sentenced 28-year-old former Marine Amir Mirzaei Hekmati to death this week after accusing the U.S.-born son of Iranian emigrant parents to have been a CIA spy.

Though not directly related to the bombings, a Venezuelan diplomat was declared persona non grata and barred from the country Sunday after being implicated in an allegedly Iran-sponsored effort to launch cyberattacks against U.S. nuclear facilities.

Venezuela and Iran are allied in their opposition to U.S. influence, a connection reinforced by a visit to Venezuela by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad earlier this week.

Iran's increasingly aggressive response to pressure is provocative, but also indicates the regime is being pushed into a position of having to decide whether to "retaliate or compromise" with opponents of its nuclear program according to Iranian-born security analyst Meir Javedanfar, who lives in Israel.

“From the international consensus that we can see against Iran, even if (Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) does retaliate, it’s not very likely that the pressure — sanctions and isolation — would ease,” Javedanfar told the Associated Press. "He’s in a tight spot."

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

ITWorld DealPost: The best in tech deals and discounts.
Shop Tech Products at Amazon