The blast at the al-Ghadir missile base at Bid Ganeh was so powerful it rattled windows 50 kilometres away in Tehran. Witnesses said it sounded like a huge bomb had been dropped. Seventeen of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards were killed, among them a man described by his peers as the “architect” of the country’s missile programme, Major General Hassan Moghaddam.
The dead were buried with full state honours and, in a reflection of the extent of Iran’s loss the funeral was attended by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The official account insisted that the blast was an accident, but a source with close links to Iran’s clerical regime blamed it on Mossad, bolstering other reports of involvement by Israel’s intelligence and special operations, attributed to Western intelligence.
If the reports are true, the blast would mark a dramatic escalation in a shadow war over the Iranian nuclear programme.
Moghaddam, an engineer by profession, was reported to have been trained in ballistic science by China and North Korea. Mostafa Izadi, an Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander and a close friend, said in his obituary: “Since 1984 he pioneered the IRGC’s ground-to-ground missile system … the work which has so frightened the world’s imperialist powers and the Zionist regime today.”
Moghaddam’s violent death, coming in the wake of a series of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists on the streets of Tehran and rising tensions over Iran’s nuclear and missile programmes, raised questions about whether the explosion was the latest, bloodiest blow in a covert war.
Iran had blamed the killings of three scientists in the past two years on Israel, but on this occasion the corps’s public relations department was quick to rule out sabotage, while saying that the investigation into the incident had not been completed.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, however, a former director of an Iranian state-run organisation with close links to the regime, said: “I believe that Saturday’s explosion was part of the covert war against Iran led by Israel.” The former official compared Saturday’s incident to a similar blast in October 2010 at an IRGC missile base near the city of Khorramabad. “I have information that both these incidents were the work of sabotage by agents of Israel, aimed at halting Iran’s missile programme,” he said.
The bases in both cases housed Iran’s Shahab-3 missiles, based on a North Korean design. An upgraded variant was said to have a range of 2 000 kilometres, which would allow it to reach Israel.
A report last week by the International Atomic Energy Agency said its inspectors had found evidence that Iran had carried out research and tests on making a nuclear warhead small enough to put on top of a Shahab-3. The report found there was more solid evidence for such research up to 2003 than in later years, but said there were signs that research, including computer modelling, was continuing.
The official account of last Saturday’s blast said it had taken place in an arms depot when munitions were being moved. Reports said a Shahab-3 detonated while Moghaddam was overseeing its redeployment. Witnesses spoke of one giant blast rather than a series of detonations, which might be expected from a blaze in a munitions store.
Time magazine also cited a “Western intelligence source” as saying that Mossad was behind the blast and that many more would follow.
If it was an act of sabotage, blowing up one of Iran’s most prized weapons when the godfather of the missile programme was within range was a remarkable coup. It would also mark a serious escalation in a covert war being fought by both sides.
United States officials believe a plot uncovered in October to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington by blowing up a popular restaurant in the city was the work of the corps, possibly in retaliation for the assassinations of the Iranian scientists. If so, more reprisals could be in the pipeline. —