The escalating confrontation between Iran and the West has produced an atomic “whodunit,” with fingers pointing across the Middle East.
Last month, Iran reported the death of Ardeshir Hassanpour, 44, one of the country’s leading nuclear scientists. The news fueled a wave of rumors and conspiracy theories in cyberspace.
Radio Farda, which is funded by the U.S. State Department and broadcasts into Iran, reported “mysterious circumstances.” Iranian dissidents claimed it was a Tehran-ordered hit because Hassanpour, a professor at Shiraz University, “was leaking information to the West.” One U.S. security consulting firm proclaimed that the killing was part of a Mossad effort to thwart Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon.
None of the above, according to the Iranian government. Tehran blamed the death on a freak accident, saying that Hassanpour died from “gas suffocation at his home.”
The case has generated “Internet buzz,” said Patrick Clawson, deputy director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Of course, there are many people wondering if Israel is repeating its successful campaign against scientists working on the Egyptian missile program in the 1960s,” he added. “I really don’t know what happened.”
The first Iranian reports of Hassanpour’s demise came January 21, six days after his death, and blamed the tragedy on “gas poisoning,” according to Radio Farda. On February 2, Stratfor, a company based in the United States, asserted that Israel had ordered a hit on Hassanpour. The company cited “very strong intelligence” that the physicist died from “radioactive poisoning” as part of a Mossad effort to halt the Iranian nuclear program — a theory that was repeated two days later in the London Times.
And while some observers believed that Tehran would seize upon the charges to blast Jerusalem, the opposite happened. Iranian Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh, who is also head of the country’s Atomic Energy Organization, was quickly quoted as saying that all of Iran’s nuclear experts, “thank God, are sound and safe.” And the Fars news cited an unidentified “informed source” as saying that Hassanpour had been “suffocated by fumes from a faulty gas fire in sleep”; the source also rejected as propaganda the theory about Mossad participation. The Israeli intelligence agency “is basically incapable of running operations inside Iran,” the source reportedly said. The next day, AlArabiya.net, a Saudi-owned online news service, added a new dimension to the mystery by relaying the claims of Ali Nourizadeh, longtime critic of the regime, that the Iranian government had in fact assassinated Hassanpour.
Nourizadeh, a London based journalist, offered a number of reasons for pointing the finger at Tehran, including the claim that Hassanpour was leaking information about the Iranian nuclear program to Western countries. Also, Nourizadeh said, Iranian officials were annoyed with Hassanpour’s repeated warnings about the danger of an accident at a nuclear reactor.
Nourizadeh told Al Arabiya that he received an e-mail from Hassanpour two weeks prior to his death, in which he expressed his concerns and complained that he was being followed.
“Two weeks later,” Nourizadeh was quoted as saying, “I received a letter from one of his students telling me that the man was ‘killed’ in his home and that they found his body three days later.”
According to Nourizadeh, Iranian suspicions about the scientist were prompted by a visit he made to Dubai and by the possibility that he met Americans on that occasion. Hassanpour, Nourizadeh added, had decided to stop cooperating with the regime following the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president in August 2005, because he saw him as dangerous for the country.
But while Nourizadeh described Hassanpour as “a genius in the manufacturing of missiles in Iran” who worked for the leading government weaponry agencies and played a “prominent role” in designing Iranian missiles, the Fars news agency stated that he did not work at nuclear facilities and was merely a university professor at Shiraz.
Media reports have stated that he received Iran’s most prestigious military-research prize in 2004 and the top award at an international science conference last year.
Though the mystery remains unsolved, a couple of things are certain: Hassanpour is dead, and footage of his funeral was posted on the Internet.
Or was it?