TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Assailants on motorcycles attached magnetized bombs to the cars of two nuclear scientists as they were driving to work in Tehran on Monday, killing one and wounding the other, Iranian officials said. The president accused Israel and the West of being behind the attacks.
Iran's nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, said the man killed was involved in a major project with the country's nuclear agency, though he did not give specifics. Some Iranian media reported that the wounded scientist was a laser expert at Iran's Defense Ministry and one of the country's few top specialists in nuclear isotope separation.
Iranian officials said they suspected the assassination was part of a covert campaign aimed at damaging the country's nuclear program, which the United States and its allies says is intended to build a weapon — a claim Tehran denies. At least two other Iranian nuclear scientists have been killed in recent years, one of them in an attack similar to Monday's.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a press conference that "undoubtedly, the hand of the Zionist regime and Western governments is involved in the assassination."
But he said the attack would not hamper the nuclear program and vowed that one day Iran would take retribution. "The day in the near future when time will come for taking them into account, their file will be very thick," he said.
Asked about the Iranian accusations, Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said Israel did not comment on such matters. Washington has strongly denied any link to previous attacks.
The attacks, as described by Iranian officials, appeared sophisticated.
In each case, assailants on motorcycles approached the cars as they were moving through Tehran and attached magnetized bombs to the vehicles, Tehran police chief Hossein Sajednia said. The bombs exploded seconds later, he said, according to the state news agency IRNA.
He said no one has been arrested in connection with the attack nor no one has so far claimed responsibility.
The bombings both took place in the morning, but there were conflicting reports on what time each took place. The bombs went off in two separate locations, in north and northeast Tehran, that lie about a 15-minute drive apart without traffic.
The slain scientist, Majid Shahriari, was a member of the nuclear engineering faculty at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran. His wife, who was in the car with him, was wounded.
Shahriari cooperated with the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said Salehi, a vice president who heads the organization. "He was involved in one of the big AEOI projects, which is a source of pride for the Iranian nation," Salehi said, according to IRNA, without giving any details on the project. Salehi also said the killed scientist was one of his own students.
The AEOI is in charge of Iran's nuclear activities — including its uranium enrichment program, which the United Nations has demanded be halted.
The other attack targeted scientist Fereidoun Abbasi, who was wounded along with his wife.
A pro-government website, mashreghnews.ir, said Abbasi held a Ph.D. in nuclear physics and has long been a member of the Revolutionary Guard, the country's most powerful military force. It said he was also a lecturer at Imam Hossein University, affiliated to the Guard. The United States accuses the Guard of having a role in Iran's nuclear program.
The site said Abbasi was a laser expert at Iran's Defense Ministry and one of few top Iranian specialists in nuclear isotope separation.
Isotope separation — meaning the isolating of a specific isotope of an element — is a process needed for a range of purposes, from producing enriched uranium fuel for a reactor, to manufacturing medical isotopes to producing a bomb.
Iran says its nuclear program is intended entirely for peaceful purposes, including producing electricity. The U.N. has demanded a halt to uranium enrichment because it can be used to produce reactor fuel or a bomb, but Tehran insists it has a right to pursue the technology.
Iran has continued to portray its nuclear program as being under constant pressure from the West and its allies. These include alleged abductions of nuclear officials and, more recently, a computer worm known as Stuxnet that experts say was calibrated to destroy uranium-enrichment centrifuges by sending them spinning out of control. Iran says its experts stopped Stuxnet from affecting systems at its nuclear facilities.
Monday's attacks bore close similarities to another in January that killed Tehran University professor Masoud Ali Mohammadi, a senior physics professor. He was killed when a bomb-rigged motorcycle exploded near his car as he was about to leave for work.
In 2007, state TV reported that nuclear scientist, Ardeshir Hosseinpour, died from gas poisoning. A one-week delay in the reporting of his death prompted speculation about the cause, including that Israel's Mossad spy agency was to blame.
The latest attacks come a day after the release of internal State Department cables by the whistle-blower website Wikileaks, including several that vividly detail Arab fears over Iran's nuclear program and its growing political ambitions in the region.
Arab worries over Iran often have been expressed in public in careful, diplomatic language by officials in the Gulf and elsewhere. The messages obtained by Wikileaks, however, appear to reflect the urgency of the concerns and the impression that a U.S.-led attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would be welcomed by some leaders of Arab nations in the Middle East, especially the oil-rich states that neighbor Iran in the Persian Gulf.
Salehi, the nuclear chief, issued a stern warning as he rushed to hospital to see the surviving scientist.
"Don't play with fire. The patience of the Iranian nation has limits. If it runs out of patience, bad consequences will await enemies," he said at Abbasi's bedside, according to IRNA, apparently referring to Israel and the U.S.
Lawmaker Javad Jahangirzadeh said Israel was behind the attacks and was trying to "create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation to stop the progress of our scientists."
There are several active armed groups that oppose Iran's ruling clerics, but it's unclear whether they could have carried out the apparently coordinated bombings in the capital. Most anti-government violence in recent years has been isolated to Iran's provinces such the border with Pakistan where Sunni rebels are active and the western mountains near Iraq where Kurdish separatists operate.