By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Iran may be outraged at the killing of another nuclear scientist in broad daylight, but it lacks viable avenues for international condemnation or prosecution of what could be an attempt to sabotage its nuclear program.
Tehran urged the U.N. Security Council and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday to condemn the latest in a series of assassinations, which it said were "cruel, inhumane and criminal acts of terrorism" aimed at undermining a nuclear program that Western powers and Israel suspect is for weapons.
Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful and has defied Security Council demands - backed up by four rounds of U.N. sanctions - that it stop enriching uranium.
Iran's U.N. Ambassador Mohammad Khazaee appealed to Ban and the 15-nation council "to condemn, in the strongest terms, these inhumane terrorist acts and to take effective steps towards elimination of terrorism in all its forms and manifestations."
"Any kind of political and economic pressures or terrorist attacks targeting the Iranian nuclear scientists, could not prevent our nation in exercising this right" to pursue its nuclear program, Khazaee said in a letter, obtained by Reuters.
The United Nations has not heeded previous Iranian calls for condemnations of similar assassinations. Even if the Security Council were to take up the issue, the United States could use its veto power to block even the mildest condemnation.
Ban's spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters earlier on Wednesday that the United Nations was aware of the reports out of Tehran but had no immediate comment.
But Christof Heyns, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, said in a statement to Reuters the Wednesday assassination seemed to reflect a "worrying trend of extrajudicial executions of nuclear scientists in Iran."
"The killings are unlawful and should be condemned," Heyns said. "The onus is on the Iranian authorities to investigate what has happened, to make the evidence known and to bring the perpetrators to book."
Tehran blamed the United States and Israel for the attack, although Khazaee left that out of his letter. The White House denied any U.S. role and Israel declined to comment.
"STICKY MAGNETIC BOMB"
"Based on the existing evidence collected by the relevant Iranian security authorities, similar to previous incidents, perpetrators used the same terrorist method in assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists," Khazaee said.
He said the assassins worked by attaching "a sticky magnetic bomb to the car carrying the scientists and detonating it."
In October 2011, Khazaee complained to the council and Ban Ki-moon about the hits on Iranian scientists in a letter responding to U.S. allegations that Iran had plotted to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington.
In early November, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said he had 100 "undeniable documents" proving that Washington was behind the "terrorist acts" in Iran.
Saeed Jalili, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, said Iran was handing over to the United Nations all the evidence of U.S. plots. Nothing came of the Iranian complaints.
Later in November, the overwhelming majority of the 193-nation U.N. General Assembly voted to condemn the alleged Iranian plot. Unlike the Saudis, Iran was unable to secure a condemnation of the assassinations of its scientists.
In the absence of war, targeted killings are illegal under international law. If Israel or the United States were found to be involved in the assassinations, it would violate the U.N. Charter, which bans the use of force against sovereign states.
Tehran could launch legal proceedings in Iran. The International Court of Justice in The Hague, established by the U.N. Charter, would be the most obvious international forum for Iran to bring a legal case. But the court will only hear cases where states involved jointly request its involvement.
One of the reasons the Saudi plot angered U.N. member states was that it was aimed at an envoy of a sovereign government. U.N. member states traditionally have no tolerance for threats against diplomats, whether friend or foe.
In 2010, Israel's Mossad intelligence agency was accused of sending a hit squad to assassinate a Hamas militant in a Dubai hotel. The suspected agents were caught on videotape following their target in the hotel.
Authorities in Britain and other European capitals launched their own investigations into the Dubai hit, but not because a member of Hamas had been killed. They were irritated by the fact that fraudulent European passports were used by the hit squad.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Longstreth and Rebecca Hamilton; Editing by Paul Simao)