VIENNA (AP) — A man shot dead on a Tehran street by motorcycle-riding gunmen last weekend was a scientist involved in suspected Iranian attempts to make nuclear weapons and not a student as officially claimed, a foreign government official and a former U.N. nuclear inspector have told The Associated Press.
The man was shot Saturday by a pair of gunmen firing from motorcycles in an attack similar to recent assassinations of two nuclear scientists that Iran blames on the United States and Israel. State-run media initially identified him as Darioush Rezaei, a physics professor and expert in neutron transport, but backtracked within hours, with officials subsequently naming him as Darioush Rezaeinejad, an electronics student.
An official — from a member nation of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency — verified that the victim was named Darioush Rezaeinejad, but said he participated in developing high-voltage switches, a key component in setting off the explosions needed to trigger a nuclear warhead. An abstract seen by the AP and bearing the name Darioush Rezaeinejad as a co-author appears to back that claim.
Two other men, both of them nuclear scientists, were killed last year by assassins on motorcycles. While the possibility remained that there may be two Darioush Rezaeinejads, a senior Western diplomat in Vienna said the three assassinations, as well as the "back and forth by the Iranians" on the latest victim's identity, had sharpened suspicions in his capital of a possible cover-up. He asked for anonymity because he was relaying confidential information.
Iran denies it seeks nuclear weapons and insists its activities are geared only to generate fuel for a future reactor network and other peaceful purposes. But it refuses to cease activities that could be used to make such weapons, despite U.N. sanctions, and is stonewalling International Atomic Energy Agency attempts to probe intelligence-based allegations that it worked on components of such arms.
Explosives testing that can be linked to a nuclear weapons program is one of the alleged secret Iranian programs the IAEA has been trying to probe. Four of seven "areas of concern" listed in a section of a May IAEA report dealing with possible nuclear weapons programs experiments by Iran have to do with that issue, including suspected "high voltage firing equipment and instrumentation for explosives testing" for possible weapons applications.
Because of U.N. embargoes prohibiting the sale to Iran of sensitive nuclear technologies, it has tried to secure components clandestinely, including the high-voltage switches.
The official described Rezaeinejad as a physicist who had worked in the past for the Iranian defense ministry on projects linked to nuclear weapons development, including the switches. He asked for anonymity because his information was privileged.
Rezaeinejad succeeded on his project, according to an abstract of an article he co-authored three years ago and presented to the 16th Conference of Iranian Power Engineering. News of the claimed success has apparently not been previously reported. If accurate, it would move Iran a step closer to the technology needed to set off a nuclear explosion.
The abstract shared with the AP says the article, entitled "Designing, Manufacturing and Testing a Closing Switch" provides "details about the designing, simulating, building and testing" of such hardware.
"The said switch has been manufactured and ... the results of tests show that the switch worked properly and met expectations," said the abstract.
Such switches also have uses in medical and nonmilitary scientific applications. But a former U.N. nuclear inspector — who also asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information — said the title of the document would make "an explosive application" likely, along with the fact that the co-author, Mojtaba Dadashnejad, had published several separate articles about explosives testing.
Nuclear warheads are triggered by a series of conventional explosions, and the switch in question is a key piece of hardware in the process. While Iran has denied weapons intentions since its nuclear program was revealed almost a decade ago, it apparently tried to import the components nine years ago.
Back then, Eddie Johansson, a Swedish citizen of Iranian origin, and his German accomplices were foiled by German customs agents in trying to smuggle 44 high-voltage switches made by Germany's Behlke Electronic GmbH to Iran. Johansson, whose original name was Hojat Nagash Souratgar, had earlier attempted to acquire Behlke switches from a U.S. firm but broke off the deal when he was questioned about the end user for the components.
In a November attack, assailants on motorcycles attached magnetized bombs to the cars of two nuclear scientists as they drove to work in separate parts of the capital Monday morning. They detonated seconds later, killing one scientist, wounding another and wounding each of their wives, who were in the cars. Iran has blamed Israel and the West for that assault, but officials have been quiet about Saturday's killing.
The November bombings bore close similarities to another in January 2010 that killed a senior physics professor when a bomb-rigged motorcycle exploded near his car as he was about to leave for work.
George Jahn can be contacted at http://twitter.com/georgejahn