Slain Iranian Physicist's Campus Talk Suggests Strong Reformist Ties

Staff Writer

Who killed Masoud Alimohammadi, the Iranian physicist who was blown up outside his apartment in Teheran on 12 January by a remote-controlled motorcycle bomb?  Emerging details of the professor's scientific and political life have strengthened the accusation by opponents of Iran’s regime that the murder was sponsored by pro-government forces and not by foreign intelligence agencies, as Iranian authorities claim.

It has already been reported that Alimohammadi, a theoretical particle physicist at the University of Tehran, was one of 240 academics at the institution who had declared their support for Mir Hossein Mousavi, the main opponent of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in last year's election. But ScienceInsider has learned that Alimohammadi's engagement in politics went beyond that.

On 5 January, just a week before he was killed, Alimohammadi gave a talk before a student gathering at his university's physics department in which he encouraged students to press on with the reformist movement without descending into chaos. (A recording of the session was posted on YouTube last week here, but it has been subsequently removed.)  Expressing disillusionment with Iran's current state of affairs, Alimohammadi recounted his political activism from 3 decades ago when he participated in the Islamic revolution.

ScienceInsider learned of the talk from Ali Nayeri, an Iranian-born physicist at Chapman University in Orange, California, who was a freshman at Sharif University in the late '80s when Alimohammadi was earning a Ph.D. from that institution. Alimohammadi starts the talk by noting that fear of reprisals had kept many on campus from attending the event. “I, too, was instructed not to come,” he says, according to a translation.

Nayeri says he and many students he has talked to at the University of Tehran believe that Alimohammadi paid a price for his activism. “His killing was masterminded by the Islamic Republic,” Nayeri alleges. “The message to academics is: 'Don’t meddle in the political sphere.' ”

A look at Alimohammadi’s history reveals a man who went from radical Islamist roots to becoming a moderate and a reformist.

As a college student in the '80s, he was actively involved in the cultural revolution that followed the overthrow of the monarchy in 1979, serving on a university committee that worked on physics education. He became the first Iranian student to receive a Ph.D. in physics from an Iranian university. 

Nayeri says he saw Alimohammadi for the first time during a campus visit by the Nobelist Abdus Salam to officially inaugurate the Ph.D. program that Alimohammadi was enrolled in. Sporting a full beard, the young graduate student looked very much the pious Muslim that many say he was, Nayeri says. At the ceremony, a senior Iranian physicist touted Alimohammadi and the three other students who made up the inaugural class as proof that Iran could produce the next Salam. 

Nayeri says his last meeting with Alimohammadi—in 1995 at a conference in Port Anzali—offers an insight into the man’s love for his country. Nayeri told Alimohammadi, then a researcher at the Institute for Studies in Theoretical Physics and Mathematics, about his plans to go abroad for graduate studies. Alimohammadi listened quietly, without expression, puffing on a cigarette. Nayeri finally asked him why he hadn’t moved to the West to pursue a scientific career. “He said—because we wanted to show that it was possible to stay in Iran and produce world class papers,” Nayeri recalls.

Posted in Asia, Physics, Policy