Sunday, January 22, 2012

Recent Assassinations: Work of a Desperate Iran?

By Clare M. Lopez

Gelareh Bagherzadeh was studying molecular genetic technology at the Texas Medical Center in Houston. An outspoken supporter of women's rights, the Greens Movement, and regime change in Iran, she was known to be concerned about becoming a target for reprisal. On Monday, 16 January 2012, she was shot dead in her car in an upscale townhouse community where she lived near the Houston Galleria. Her purse and personal items were left untouched, lending weight to the likelihood that this was a professional hit job.

Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan was a young chemical scientist who worked at Natanz, the Iranian uranium enrichment facility. At 32, he was just a couple years older than Bagherzadeh. He was assassinated while driving to work in Tehran on January 11, 2012 by a sticky bomb affixed to his car window by a motorcyclist, who then sped away. He was the fifth Iranian academic or scientist affiliated with the regime's nuclear weapons program to be killed in the last several years.

Just weeks earlier, in November 2011, two large-scale explosions had shaken the Iranian nuclear establishment: The first demolished several buildings at an Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) missile base and also killed General Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam, the head of Iran's ballistic missile program; the second was reported as a huge blast near the Isfahan uranium conversion facility.

Striking Parallels

There are some striking parallels between these two recent killings, the one in Houston and the one in Tehran, only days apart and both of them young scientists, murdered in their cars by unknown assailants. While it's unclear who is responsible for these events, speculation and accusations are flying in all directions. Whether Ahmadi-Roshan was killed by Mossad agents, Iranian dissidents, or his own intelligence service, may never be known publicly, just as whoever shot the young med student in Houston may never be brought to justice.

Still, the psychological pressure on the Iranian regime continues to ratchet upwards and as panic sets in, it is increasingly likely that Tehran will lash out against enemies both real and perceived. It would appear that even American citizens in their own backyards may not be safe from the long reach of this terrorist regime.

Things cannot be looking good from where Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei sits. Tensions in the Persian Gulf intensified in late December 2011 as Iranian war games and U.S. aircraft carrier movements brought Iranian naval threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, followed shortly by a statement from a senior IRGC commander apparently backing off the threats. Iran also chose the same day to announce an offer to resume nuclear talks with Western powers.

Mysterious Explosions

Those mysterious explosions targeting IRGC facilities in November 2011 were just the latest in a long series of attacks against Iran's nuclear weapons program, attacks which have included assassinations and attempted assassinations, the Stuxnet computer virus, and the probable defection of at least one senior IRGC commander (Alireza Asgari, a former deputy defense minister, who disappeared in Turkey in 2006).

U.S. sanctions, passed 100-0 by the Senate in December 2011, may yet tighten the screws on the mullahs' cash flow by targeting Iran's Central Bank in a bid to cripple Iran's oil sales. The rial is sinking, foreign currency trading by common citizens has been curtailed, and the security services are methodically closing off people's access to the internet. The Chinese Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, just visited Riyadh and signed a deal to build a big oil refinery in Yanbu, Saudi Arabia.

Things are not going very well for Iran's key regional ally in Damascus, either, and the U.S. State Department is faced with a growing crescendo of calls to remove Iran's most feared opposition group, the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MeK), from its Foreign Terrorist Organizations list so that 3,400 unarmed MeK residents of Ashraf City in northern Iraq who were granted 4th Geneva Convention protection by the U.S. government in 2004 can be resettled elsewhere by the United Nations before they are slaughtered by an Iraqi government that is fast falling under the hegemony of its neighbor to the east.

Internal Feud

What's a regime to do? Iranian president Ahmadinejad, who's been on the losing end of a feud with Supreme Leader Khamenei for months, took off for Latin America, where he could look forward to seeing some friendly faces (even if Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, reportedly suffering from terminal cancer, may not be around for much longer). The usual roster of "Iran Lobby" regime apologists took to the airwaves and internet with the same, tired talking points about sensitivity for Tehran's upset feelings at being treated so shabbily by the international community.

In fact, so fixated on getting the mullahs' message out were some of them that they completely missed the December 22, 2011 blockbuster ruling by Judge George Daniels of the Southern District of New York in the Havlish case, which found Iran had provided direct and material support to al-Qa'eda in the 9/11 attacks.

As Iranian dissidents and exiles everywhere well know, though, this is a regime that routinely uses murder and terror, not just propaganda, as tools of survival. Still, turning on its own is never a good sign: Ahmad Rezai, the son of former Iranian IRGC commander, Mohsen Rezai, who defected to the U.S. in 1998 and became an American citizen, was found dead in a Dubai hotel room in November 2011. Then there was the early January 2012 sentencing to six-months in jail of Faezheh Hashemi, the daughter of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, theformer Iranian President. Rafsanjani, who supported opposition candidate Mir-Hussein Mousavi in the June 2009 presidential elections. He, himself, was ousted in March, 2011, from the chairmanship of the influential Assembly of Experts, a post he'd held since 2006.

And then came the assassinations of the two young scientists in Tehran and Houston. These weren't like the October 2011 allegations about an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. at a restaurant in Washington, D.C. This time, orders were given and targets dispatched. Bagherzadeh was not the first American citizen to find herself on an Iranian hit list, but the evident desperation of that regime (and apparent indifference to possible American response) may be propelling it to actions even more reckless than usual in a bid to survive.

But the assassination of an innocent American citizen on American soil by a terrorist regime dedicated to Islamic jihad crosses a line that demands an official response and deserves at least the outrage given a confused—and failed—conspiracy to murder a Saudi diplomat.

Clare M. Lopez, a senior fellow at the Clarion Fund, writes regularly for, and is a strategic policy and intelligence expert with a focus on Middle East, national defense, and counterterrorism issues.