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TEHRAN (Reuters) - Two car bomb blasts killed an Iranian nuclear scientist and wounded another in Tehran on Monday in what Iranian officials called an Israeli or U.S.-sponsored attack on its atomic programme.
The bombings, rare attacks in the Iranian capital, occurred ahead of a possible meeting between Iran and major powers next month to discuss its nuclear activity, which Western officials suspect is aimed at developing atom bombs. Iran denies this.
In the past few months, the Islamic Republic has arrested a number of alleged "nuclear spies," warning citizens against leaking information to foreign secret services.
"Majid Shahriyari was martyred and his wife was injured ... Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani and his wife were both wounded," state radio said, referring to the two scientists. "The attackers planted a bomb on each of the teachers' vehicles."
Abbas-Davani has been personally subjected to U.N. sanctions because of what Western officials said was his involvement in suspected nuclear weapons research. He was "not seriously injured in the blast," the semi-official Mehr news agency said.
Iran's atomic energy agency chief Ali Akbar Salehi said Shahriyari had a role in one of its biggest nuclear projects, but did not elaborate, the official news agency IRNA reported.
Salehi warned enemies not to "play with fire" by carrying out such attacks. "Our nation's patience has a limit ... When it is over our enemies will face a tedious fate," Salehi said, as quoted by IRNA.
"Dr Shahriyari was my student for many years and he had good cooperation with the Atomic Energy Organisation."
Iranian television showed police and plainclothes security agents examining a silver-coloured Peugeot 206 car with what looked like shrapnel holes in its bonnet. Another car was shown with its windows smashed and a door blown off.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility. Iranian officials and media blamed Israel, which Tehran calls "the Zionist regime," and the United States for Shahriyari's death.
"The sinister Americans and Zionists thought they could derail our nation from its scientific path and stop our elites from progressing in science by killing our scientists," Mohammad-Reza Naqdi, head of the pro-government Islamic Basij militia, was quoted as saying by the semi-official Fars news agency.
"We will certainly avenge these crimes of the Americans and Zionists and soon the gallows will be earmarked for the retribution of the blood of Shahriyari."
Another nuclear scientist, Massoud Ali-Mohammadi, was killed by a remote-controlled bomb in Tehran in January. Some opposition websites said he had backed moderate candidate Mirhossein Mousavi in the 2009 disputed presidential election that secured President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's return to power.
Western security sources said in January that Mohammadi had worked closely with Abbassi-Davani.
"There is a long history of Western intelligence agencies and Israeli intelligence agencies trying to take out people in clandestine programmes in that part of the world," Mark Hibbs, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told Reuters in Europe.
"So it wouldn't be a surprise, certainly not if it turned that they were targeted for their role in the programme."
Such a hit might hamper Iran's nuclear programme in the short term but could also have the effect of driving its atomic activity further underground, Hibbs said.
Iran, a major oil producer, says it is enriching uranium solely to provide an alternative source of electricity.
But suspicions that it is covertly seeking nuclear weapons, raised by Iran's past failure to report enrichment activity to the U.N. nuclear watchdog and continued restrictions on its inspectors, have led to several rounds of sanctions by the United Nations, the European Union and the United States.
(Additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl in Vienna; editing by Mark Heinrich)
Reporting by Hossein Jaseb and Ramin Mostafavi; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Jon Hemming