Media reports are swirling about the shooting of an Iranian “academic” on the way to his childrens’ kindergarten. The Associated Press is saying that the man killed was Daryoush Rezaei, a physicist reportedly closely involved with Iran’s nuclear program. This version is being carried by Iran’s Mehr News Agency and the Tehran Times. (Fars is still apparently silent). However, the slickest and most “professional” of Iran’s English-language outlets, PressTV, is saying that it was a case of mistaken identity, and that the man killed was Daryoush Rezaeinejad, an “academic” (the word used in all Iranian sources). IRNA is also claiming that the man killed was Rezaeinejad, not Rezaei, but says that he was a postgraduate “in the field of power and electronics and was cooperating with a number of universities and scientific centers.”
As all of articles point out, being a nuclear scientist is a dangerous job in Iran. With more aggressive military options for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program being risky and unpopular, it seems that some outside forces have chosen to use covert actions to slow the program. Assessments of the attacks have suggested that they likely involved outside forces acting in cooperation with internal dissidents like the Mujahedin-e Khalq or Jundallah. If this was a case of mistaken identity, it might point to a breakdown in that cooperation–either outsiders with inadequate cultural knowledge or insiders with inadequate training acting were acting on their own. Perhaps Iran’s claim to have shut down a major CIA network a few weeks ago had some truth.
However, we must also wonder whether this is a deliberate attempt at misinformation by Iranian media. Al Jazeera reports that the victim was Rezaeinejad, that this man was a nuclear scientist, and that he was killed walking into a garage, not at a kindergarten. This mixed picture seems credible, and it would suggest that (surprise, surprise) the more inflammatory account run in Iran’s media was misleading. If Rezaeinejad the postdoc “power and electronics” specialist, not Rezaei, the senior scientist, was killed, it would reflect an expansion of the anti-nuclear campaign. The previous attacks had targeted senior scientists–one survivor has gone on to become one of Iran’s Vice Presidents. Killing top figures deprives the program of its most valuable minds, but Iran probably can protect these top figures fairly effectively. There is an alternative approach, however–mass dissuasion of more junior scientists. By killing someone who may have had a small role in the program, those behind the attacks have hung a sword of Damocles over every scientist in the Islamic Republic–and around the world–that is tempted to associate with the Iranian nuclear drive. This tactic has been used of late in the US by terrorist groups like the Animal Liberation Front, who have harassed undergraduate laboratory assistants doing medical research on animals–and engaged in arson against the researchers.
Science, like terrorism, is a human-capital intensive activity. Attacks on Iranian scientists may be just as effective at slowing Iran’s nuclear program as attacks on physical capital like the Stuxnet worm.