By Fredrik Dahl
An undated image released by Iranâ€™s Fars News Agency of Tehran University professor Massoud Ali-Mohammadi who was killed by a bomb in front of his home in north Tehran January 12, 2010.
TEHRAN (Reuters) – A remote-controlled bomb killed a Tehran University scientist on Tuesday, official media reported, in an attack Iran blamed on the United States and Israel.
Iranian officials and state media described professor Massoud Ali-Mohammadi as a nuclear scientist, and Iranâ€™s cabinet said agents of the United States were behind his murder.
A State Department official in Washington said charges of U.S. involvement were absurd.
Western sources said Ali-Mohammadi, a physics professor, worked closely with Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi and Fereydoun Abbassi-Davani, both subject to U.N. sanctions because of their work on suspected nuclear weapons development.
The U.N. nuclear agency is investigating Iranâ€™s nuclear program, which Tehran says is for generating electricity and not for building nuclear bombs as the West suspects.
Ali Shirzadian, a spokesman for Iranâ€™s Atomic Energy Organization, said Ali-Mohammadi, 50, had not played a role in the activities of the organization, which is at the center of the disputed nuclear program.
Shahram Amiri, a university researcher working for the atomic body, disappeared during a pilgrimage to Mecca in June, three months before Iran disclosed the existence of its second uranium enrichment site near the city of Qom. In December, Tehran accused Saudi Arabia of handing Amiri over to the United States.
â€œAmericaâ€™s spying and intelligence agents from one side abduct some Iranian citizens … and on the other side their treacherous agents kill an Iranian citizen inside the country,â€ an Iranian cabinet statement said, reported by the semi-official Fars news agency.
A list of Ali-Mohammadiâ€™s publications on Tehran Universityâ€™s website suggested his specialism was theoretical particle physics, not nuclear energy, a Western physics professor said.
The bombing — a rare attack in the Iranian capital — occurred at a time of heightened tension in the Islamic Republic seven months after a disputed presidential election plunged the oil producer into turmoil.
It also coincided with a sensitive juncture in Iranâ€™s row with the West over its nuclear ambitions, with global powers expected to meet in New York on Saturday to discuss possible new sanctions on Tehran over its refusal to halt its atomic work.
Earlier, Iranâ€™s Foreign Ministry blamed Israel and the United States.
â€œSigns of the triangle of wickedness by the Zionist regime (Israel), America and their hired agents, are visible in the terrorist act,â€ it said.
â€œSuch terrorist acts and the apparent elimination of the countryâ€™s nuclear scientists will definitely not obstruct scientific and technological processes,â€ it said.
White House spokesman Bill Burton said the accusations were absurd. A senior Israeli official said Ali-Mohammadi was not known to have been a significant figure in any military nuclear program.
English-language Press TV said Ali-Mohammadi was killed in a northern part of the capital by a booby-trapped motorcycle as he was leaving his home. It showed footage of blood stains, broken glass and other debris at the scene, with what appeared to be the dead man in a body bag taken away on a stretcher.
Fars said President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had ordered the intelligence and security services to use all their capabilities to find those behind the killing.
State broadcaster IRIB described al-Mohammadi as a â€œcommitted and revolutionaryâ€ professor, suggesting he backed Ahmadinejadâ€™s government. Fars quoted one of his students as saying he had worked with the elite Revolutionary Guards until 2003.
But an opposition website, Jaras, said he was an opposition supporter whose name was among hundreds of academics who issued a statement in favor of moderate candidate Mirhossein Mousavi during the campaign for last Juneâ€™s election.
Even if he had worked on Iranâ€™s nuclear program, analysts doubted his death could set back Tehranâ€™s aspirations.
â€œI have no reason to think that this is part of an Israeli or American strategy to deprive Iran of the brains of the enrichment process,â€ said Mark Fitzpatrick, chief proliferation analyst at Londonâ€™s International Institute for Strategic Studies. â€œThere are by now too many scientists and engineers with the requisite expertiseâ€.
STRATFOR, a global intelligence firm, said Ali-Mohammadi was unlikely to have been a key figure in nuclear activities since his publishing record pointed to purely academic research.
â€œThe relatively high visibility and volume of work in academia suggests that Ali-Mohammadiâ€™s role, if any, in the nuclear program was not very significant,â€ STRATFOR said in an analysis. â€œCritical scientists involved in nuclear weapons programs usually are sequestered carefully and provided more security than Ali-Mohammadi was given.â€
Fars quoted a foreign-based group, the Iran Monarchy Association, as claiming responsibility for Tuesdayâ€™s bombing. It did not say how it obtained the statement.
Iran has been convulsed by its most serious domestic unrest since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 as protests by opposition supporters against the election result have turned violent. Authorities deny opposition allegations that voting was rigged.
(Additional reporting by Mark Heinrich in Vienna; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Mark Trevelyan)