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A brief look at the life of a martyred Iranian nuclear scientist

Stuxnet is a malicious computer worm that was in the media headlines in the summer of 2010. It is malware whose main goal was to destroy and spy on mostly industrial systems that had been installed on Iranian nuclear facilities and that were controlling them. When everyone was checking the news related to Stuxnet and the damage it had caused, Iranian authorities mobilized a team of Iranian researchers, scholars, and engineers to find a way to control this harmful virus. One of the experts of the team became more famous. Professor Majid Shahriari, the young 44-year-old Iranian scientist, made the top news headlines in the world after he was assassinated. He was one of the most prominent scientists in the Iranian nuclear industry. It had been about two months that he had become a full professor when the issue of Stuxnet arose. Now, he and his young colleagues, who were among the consultants and scientists in the fledgling nuclear industry, had to fight a virus that was rooted in the computer laboratories of Israeli and US spy services. Two to three months of hard work by Majid and the other Iranian scientists gave results. A major part of the Iranian systems had been cleaned of Stuxnet.

Dr. Ali Akbar Salehi, the former head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, has an interesting story about Dr. Shahriari’s scientific capabilities and modesty. He said, “When we were assigned to achieve 20% enrichment, a comprehensive arrangement was made including the participation of scientists from different fields. To advance work in this area, critical calculations had to be made. In Iran, we had no one to help. We tried to remedy this shortcoming in different ways. We couldn’t do anything. If this part of the work wasn’t done, all of the work would be stopped. It was very sensitive, hard work. I raised this issue. Dr. Shahriari calmly said that he would do the calculations. This was unbelievable. A person who had never gone through any special training and had never been abroad was going to do these calculations. Shahriari did the job. Shahriari did it all by himself. He did the calculations and didn’t get anything for it. No matter what I said, he didn’t take anything for it.”

Majid was one of the most important scientists and advisors in the Islamic Republic working on the SESAMI project. Majid was born in December, 1966 in Zanjan, which is 330 kilometers to the west of Tehran. He had completed all of his education from elementary school through getting his doctorate degree in Nuclear Technology inside Iran. He was a completely Iranian scientist who had passed all his courses from learning the alphabet to the complicated calculations of nuclear plant reactors inside Iran and from Iranian teachers. One of his students narrated that once he complained about some problems and lacks in the presence of Professor Shahriari. His answer was quite clear. Confirming some of the problems and deficiencies, at the end he had told his student that we should stay and work despite all these problems. He had also clearly stated that he would never work against the (government) system and Iran and that he would deal with the problems and continue his work. He had told his student, “If you are with this country, you should stay and tolerate some problems because we are not always able to change conditions and individuals.” His wife related a similar story. Dr. Bahjat Qasemi, Majid’s wife, says he would never respond to invitations from abroad. She said, “Once I said -I’m not saying that this was my true belief, just to have said something – ‘Let’s leave Iran and be away from all this unrest.’ Majid became very upset that why would his wife say something like this. He said, ‘You want us to leave our country and go where?!’”

Another characteristic of Shahriari was his adherence and commitment to the stances announced in religion and Islam. This attitude had been institutionalized in him from childhood and remained strong and deep-rooted in him until the end of his life. His wife narrated that Shahriari was in the habit of reading the Qur’an. He had a good voice too and recited the Qur’an in the style of Parhizkar, a famous Iranian reciter of the Qur’an. His friends state that he was committed to praying the night prayer. Talking behind anyone’s back was forbidden in Dr. Shahriari’s presence. If he could not stop a person from talking behind someone else, he would leave the area. He believed all his success came from God.

One of his students related an interesting story about him after he had become a full professor. “When he became a full professor, they held a celebration for him. They wanted him to have a talk. He started his speech with the prayer, “How many ugly characteristics I have, which You (God) have covered (from others).” He wanted us to know that we should not think that he was just this degree and this position. He wanted to say that he had many ugly characteristics within him, which God had covered. He never talked about his good characteristics in that meeting!” Another of his students narrated another interesting story about Shahriari’s commitment to praying on time, “I will never forget Dr. Shahriari’s concern about praying on time. He would quickly find the direction for prayer and start praying once the call to prayer had been recited, even if we were walking on a mountain. Sometimes I felt ashamed of myself when I saw him praying. He was very dignified in his worshiping.”

Another of Shahriari’s characteristics was the importance he attached to family relationships, his wife, children and parents. One of his students narrated that when he was in the classroom teaching, he would not answer his phone. There was one exception only, his mother! When she would call him, he would answer the phone. His close relatives have said that he was not embarrassed to kiss his mother’s hands and feet (out of respect). His wife and children were no exception. Talking about Shahriari’s personal and family relationships, his wife related, “He often came home late. I would joke and say, ‘You lost your way! What a surprise you have come home!’ Doctor would only say, “I’m sorry.” He was committed to buying gifts for his family on special occasions even if it was just a single flower. He was close friends with his children and put time for them. This man enriched my life. Love, kindness, purity, and spirituality were important to me, and Majid had all of these traits and in their entirety.”

In his position as a professor at the university, Shahriari treated his students like his family. He would say, “Their parents have entrusted them to us.” While he was strict on discipline, he was caring about the students who had problems. One of his students had financial problems when getting married. Shahriari gave him some money and told him, “Return the money whenever you have it.” Another of his students said, “One student was not able to attend classes for two or three semesters and was about to be dismissed… Dr. Shahriari pursued his problem persistently until he was finally allowed to return to class on the condition that his grades improved. Later on when this student was defending his thesis, his parents brought Dr. Shahriari a bouquet of flowers although he was not the advisor for his thesis.”

He was not jealous or stingy in transferring his knowledge to his students. One of his students said that Shahriari was not miserly in transferring his learning. He regularly held workshops and trained many students in this way. Dr. Salehi, the former head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization related a similar story, “When he was martyred, I became very worried. But he used to share his knowledge and I had not thought about this at all. The students told me not to be worried and said that Dr. Shahriari had held workshops for them from the very beginning. He had taught them the process for calculating 20% enrichment. This good scientist knew very well that he had an ability no one else had in Iran. He generously held workshops and trained about 10 to 15 individuals. His students said, “We know everything about it now.”

On November 29, 2010, it had been a few weeks that the Iranians had managed to contain Stuxnet, the sinister malware. Majid’s birthday was only eight days away. Eight days remained to him reaching the age of 45. Although this young man was unknown to many, he was quite well-known to others, that is the officials of Mossad and CIA intelligence services and their assassination squads. It was just eight days before Majid Shahriari’s birthday when a bomb that had been stuck on the door of a car in a highway in the northeast of Tehran made a person headline news in the world’s media. He was a man who was unknown to many but who had achieved great accomplishments, Professor Majid Shahriari!

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