TEHRAN: An Iranian nuclear scientist was killed by a bomb placed on his car on Wednesday in an attack Tehran’s deputy governor blamed on Israel, raising the diplomatic temperature in a stand-off with the West over Iran’s nuclear programme.
The bombing, which a city official said was similar to attacks a year ago on nuclear scientists in Iran, came as the United States sought to persuade a sceptical China to help efforts to toughen sanctions against Iran.
“The bomb was a magnetic one and the same as the ones previously used for the assassination of the scientists, and is the work of the Zionists (Israelis),” Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency quoted Tehran’s Deputy Governor Safarali Baratloo as saying.
Fars said the victim was a “nuclear scientist” who “supervised a department at Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility”.
US condemns bombing
The US State Department said it condemned any attack on an innocent person when asked about the assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist on Wednesday but declined to respond to Iran’s allegations that US or Israeli agents were responsible.
“We condemn any assassination or attack on an innocent person and we express our sympathies to the family,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters at a briefing. Asked if there was any truth to the Iranian charges of Israeli or US responsibility, she replied, “I don’t have any information to share one way or the other on that.”
US presses sanctions on Iran
New US sanctions against Iran have started to bite. The Rial currency lost 20 percent of its value against the dollar in the past week and Iran has threatened to shut the Strait of Hormuz, through which 40 percent of trade oil passes.
US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, visiting Beijing, appealed for Chinese cooperation on nuclear non-proliferation, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Iran’s move to enrich uranium near the city of Qom was “especially troubling”.
“This step once again demonstrates the Iranian regime’s blatant disregard for its responsibilities and that the country’s growing isolation is self-inflicted,” Clinton said in a statement that followed Iran’s announcement it had started enrichment in the Fordow mountain bunker complex.
Iran’s decision to carry out enrichment work deep underground at Fordow could make it much harder for US or Israeli forces to carry out veiled threats to use force against Iranian nuclear facilities. The move to Fordow could narrow a time window for diplomacy to avert any attack.
The renewed tensions over the nuclear programme, which Iran insists is purely for civilian use but Western powers suspect has military goals, have driven oil prices higher, with Brent crude up more than 5 percent since the start of the year to above $113 a barrel.
US President Barack Obama approved a law on New Year’s Eve that will sanction financial institutions dealing with Iran’s central bank, a move that makes it difficult for consumers to pay for Iranian oil.
The European Union has brought forward to January 23 a ministerial meeting that is likely to confirm an embargo on oil purchases, and big importers of Iranian oil are moving to secure alternative supplies.
Geithner is in Asia this week to drum up support for Washington’s efforts to stem the oil revenues flowing to Tehran, and made his first stop in China, Iran’s biggest customer.
“On economic growth, on financial stability around the world, on non-proliferation, we have what we view as a very strong cooperative relationship with your government and we are looking forward to building on that,” he told Vice President Xi Jinping, expected to take over as China’s leader after President Hu Jintao retires late this year.
China has backed UN Security Council resolutions calling on Iran to halt uranium enrichment activities, while working to ensure its energy ties are not threatened. As a permanent member of the council, China wields a veto.
But it has said the United States and European Union should not impose sanctions beyond the UN resolutions.
Geithner is likely to face an easier task in US ally Japan, the next stop of his trip on Thursday, which a government source has said will consider cutting back its Iranian oil purchases to secure a waiver from new US sanctions.
Japan has already asked OPEC producers Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to supply it with more oil, Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba said on Tuesday.
South Korea is also considering alternative supplies in case the US sanctions cut off Iranian shipments.