The death of an Iranian Revolutionary Guards officer was shrouded in mystery and the subject of intense speculation on Thursday as the force denied claims he had been assassinated.
Alborz, an Iranian website, reported this week that Mojtaba Ahmadi had left his house on Monday morning and was found dead with a bullet in his heart a few hours later in a wooded area near the town of Karaj, north-west of Tehran.
London’s Daily Telegraph reported that Ahmadi was the commander of the force’s cyber warfare programme. It speculated that his murder could have been an assassination, similar to those of five Iranian nuclear scientists since 2007, which Iran blamed primarily on Israel but also on the US.
The White House has condemned such attacks in the past but the official reaction from Israel was more cryptic.
Ahmadi’s murky killing comes at a particularly sensitive time, coinciding with signs of a historic thaw in relations between Iran and the US whose presidents had an unprecedented phone conversation last week.
“It wouldn’t be surprising if someone who doesn’t want to see diplomacy work sought to undermine it, but we really don’t know,” said Trita Parsi, the head of the National Iranian American Council, an advocacy group.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on Thursday said: “In the wake of a horrific incident involving one of the IRGC officials… the matter is being investigated and the main reason for the event and the motive of the attacker have not been specified.”
The communique was carried by Sepah news, which is operated by the Revolutionary Guards, under the headline: “Denial of news reports of the assassination of one of IRGC’s officials.”
Analysts said that if he was one of Iran’s leading cyber-warriors, his murder could represent a dangerous escalation in a covert war between Tehran and Tel Aviv at a particularly inopportune time.
“The result of the investigation will be announced through official channels and any speculation will not be appropriate before the investigation is over,” the guard said.
Tehran has been accused of mounting cyber attacks against Western targets in recent years but was itself targeted in 2010 by the most sophisticated-ever virus called Stuxnet – a joint Israeli-US joint operation – that struck Iran’s computer systems at important nuclear installations.
The guard has also been accused of lending its expertise to Bashar Al Assad’s regime in Syria, helping it to hack Western targets through a body called the Syrian Electronic Army. This outfit hijacked the Associated Press’s Twitter account in April, posting false reports of an explosion at the White House which briefly rocked US stock markets.
In turn, the authorities in Tehran have accused Israel and its Western allies of carrying out a series of assassinations against Iranian nuclear scientists. The last such attack was in January 2012 when Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, 32, a chemist who worked in the uranium enrichment plant near Natanz, was killed. Two men on a motorbike had attached a magnetic bomb to his Peugeot 405 while he was stalled in a Tehran traffic jam.
The Telegraph cited an unnamed police commander as saying that two people on a motorbike were involved in Ahmadi’s “assassination”.
“The method of this attack… and the nature of the target are consistent with the suggestion of an Israeli operation,” Shashank Joshi, a research fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute wrote later in a separate piece in The Telegraph’s online edition. “However, the evidence is no more than lightly circumstantial.”
Israel’s hawkish premier, Benjamin Netanyahu, has branded the moderate new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani – who has pledged to resolve the nuclear dispute with the West - a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”.
Scott Lucas, an Iran expert at Birmingham University in England, said: “Right now, we are in the realm of speculation and unproven claims over Ahmadi. Until that speculation is proven true, this should not deflect from the bigger story of Rouhani’s engagement with the West.”