(Adds Japan to reduce oil imports from Iran)
* Iran says nuclear scientist killed in car bombing
* Officials in Iran blame killing on Israel, U.S.
* Fifth such attack in two years in apparent "covert war"
By Ramin Mostafavi and Parisa Hafezi
TEHRAN, Jan 12 An Iranian nuclear
scientist was blown up in his car by a motorbike hitman,
prompting Tehran to blame Israeli and U.S. agents but insist the
killing would not derail a nuclear programme that has raised
fears of war and threatened world oil supplies.
The fifth daylight attack on technical experts in two years,
the magnetic bomb delivered a targeted blast to the door of
32-year-old Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan's car during Wednesday's
morning rush-hour. The chemical engineer's driver also died,
Iranian media said, and a passer-by was slightly hurt.
Israel, whose military chief said on Tuesday that Iran could
expect to suffer more mysterious mishaps, declined comment. The
White House, struggling for Chinese and Russian help on economic
sanctions, denied any U.S. role and condemned the attack.
While Israeli or Western involvement seemed eminently
plausible to independent analysts, a role for local Iranian
factions or other regional interests engaged in a deadly shadow
war of bluff and sabotage could not be ruled out.
The killing, which left debris hanging in trees and body
parts on the road, came in a week of heightened tension:
Iran has started an underground uranium enrichment plant and
sentenced an American to death for spying; Washington and Europe
have stepped up efforts to cripple Iran's oil exports for its
refusal to halt work that the West says betrays an ambition to
build nuclear weapons. Iran says its aims are entirely peaceful.
Tehran has threatened to choke the West's supply of Gulf oil
if its exports are hit by sanctions, drawing a U.S. warning that
its navy was ready to open fire to prevent any blockade of the
strategic Strait of Hormuz, through which 35 percent of the
world's seaborne traded oil passes.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Iran's threats
to close the strait were "provocative and dangerous" and
repeated the White House denial of any U.S. involvement in the
killing of Ahmadi-Roshan.
In Tokyo on Thursday, Japanese Finance Minister Jun Azumi
pledged after talks with U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy
Geithner to steadily reduce oil imports from Iran in support of
U.S. sanctions on Tehran over its nuclear programme.
Geithner welcomed Tokyo's cooperation, which could be an
encouraging sign for U.S. policy after China, a big buyer of
Iranian crude, and Russia rebuffed U.S. appeals to starve Iran
of much-needed revenue from oil sales.
On a visit to Cuba on Wednesday, Iranian President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad said nothing about the bomb attack but flashed the
victory sign and said Iran had done nothing to warrant enmity
from its enemies.
"Have we assaulted someone? Have we wanted more than we
should have? Never, never. We have only asked to speak about and
establish justice," said Ahmadinejad.
Analysts saw the latest assassination, which would have
taken no little expertise, as less a reaction to recent events
than part of a longer-running, covert effort to thwart Iran's
nuclear development programme that has also included suspected
computer viruses and mystery explosions.
While fears of war have forced up oil prices, the region has
seen periods of sabre-rattling and limited bloodshed before
without reaching all-out conflict. But a willingness in Israel,
which sees an imminent Iranian atom bomb as a threat to its
existence, to attack Iranian nuclear sites, with or without U.S.
backing, has heightened the sense that a crisis is coming.
The Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, which has failed to
persuade the West that its quest for nuclear power has no hidden
military goal, said the killing of Ahmadi-Roshan would not deter
it: "We will continue our path without any doubt ... Our path is
irreversible," it said in a statement carried on television.
"The heinous acts of America and the criminal Zionist regime
will not disrupt our glorious path ... The more you kill us, the
more our nation will awake."
First Vice-President Mohammad Reza Rahimi, quoted by IRNA
news agency, said: "Iran's enemies should know they cannot
prevent Iran's progress by carrying out such terrorist acts."
Iran's leaders, preparing for the first national election
since a disputed presidential vote in 2009 brought street
protests against 32 years of clerical rule, are struggling to
contain internal tensions. Defiance of Israel and Western powers
plays well with many who will vote in March.
In Washington, White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said: "The
United States had absolutely nothing to do with this ... We
strongly condemn all acts of violence, including acts of
violence like what is being reported today."
Israel, which has a history of covert killings abroad,
declined comment, though army spokesman Yoav Mordechai wrote on
Facebook: "I don't know who settled the score with the Iranian
scientist, but I am definitely not shedding any tears."
The attack bore some of the hallmarks of sophisticated
intelligence agencies capable of circumventing Iran's own
extensive security apparatus and apparently taking care to limit
the harm to passers-by.
While witnesses spoke of a frighteningly loud explosion and
parts of the Peugeot 405 ended up in the branches of the trees
lining Gol Nabi Street, much of the car was left intact. This
suggested a charge designed to be sure of both killing the
occupants and preventing serious injury to others.
Witnesses said the motorcycle, from which the rear pillion
passenger reached out to stick the device to the side of the
car, made off into the heavy commuter traffic.
Though the scientist killed -- the fourth in five such
attacks since January 2010 -- was only 32, Iranian media
described him as having a role overseeing uranium enrichment at
Natanz underground site. The semi-official news agency Mehr said
Ahmadi-Roshan had recently met officials of the U.N. nuclear
watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.
At the IAEA in Vienna, where a spokeswoman condemned the
killing, officials could not confirm knowing of him.
Analysts say that killing scientists -- especially those
whose lack of personal protection suggests a relatively junior
role -- is unlikely to have much direct impact on Iran's nuclear
programme, which Western governments allege is seeking to enrich
enough uranium highly enough to let it build weapons.
Sabotage -- like mysterious reported explosions at military
facilities or the Stuxnet computer virus widely suspected to
have been deployed by Israel and the United States to disrupt
nuclear facilities in 2010 -- may have had more direct effects.
However, assassinations may be intended to discourage
Iranians with nuclear expertise from working on the programme.
Bruno Tertrais from France's Strategic Research Foundation
said: "It certainly has a psychological effect on scientists
working on the nuclear programme."
He cautioned, however, against assuming that Israel, the
United States or both were behind the latest attack.
Trita Parsi, a U.S.-based expert on Iran, said the killing
might, along with the heightened rhetoric of recent weeks, be
part of a pattern ahead of a possible resumption of negotiations
on Iran's nuclear programme; some parties may want to improve
their bargaining position, others may see violence as a way of
thwarting renewed negotiations altogether, Parsi said.
Last month, Iran signalled a willingness to return to a
negotiating process which stalled a year ago, though Western
officials say a new round of talks is far from certain yet.
Iran's decision to carry out enrichment work deep
underground in the once undeclared plant at Fordow, near the
holy Shi'ite city of Qom, could make it harder for U.S. or
Israeli forces to carry out veiled threats to use force against
Iranian nuclear facilities. The move to Fordow could reduce the
time available for diplomacy to avert any attack.
The announcement on Monday that enrichment -- a necessary
step to make uranium into nuclear weapons -- had begun at Fordow
has given added impetus to Western efforts to impose an oil
export embargo intended to pressure Tehran to halt enrichment.
Iran, a signatory to the treaty banning the spread of
nuclear weapons, says it is entitled to conduct peaceful
research and denies any military nuclear aims. Its adversaries
say its failure to take up their offers of help with civilian
technology undermine the credibility of its position.
Oil prices have firmed 5 percent since U.S. President Barack
Obama moved on New Year's Eve to block bank payments for oil to
Iran. The European Union is expected this month to impose a ban
on its states buying oil from Tehran, and other major customers
have been looking for alternative supplies.
In Iran, the new U.S. sanctions have started to bite.
The rial currency has lost 20 percent of its value against
the dollar in the past week and Iran has threatened to shut the
Strait of Hormuz.
(Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi, Robin Pomeroy and Mitra
Amiri in Tehran, Allyn Fisher-Ilan and Dan Williams in
Jerusalem, Fredrik Dahl in Vienna, Lucy Hornby in Beijing and
Andrew Quinn in Washington; Writing by Alastair Macdonald
Editing by Ralph Gowling)