O’ROURKE: Stop assassinating scientists

Americans and Israelis agree that Iran must not develop a nuclear weapon. But while virtually all credible American experts support crippling economic sanctions as the best deterrence for now, many in Israel are unsatisfied with nonlethal tactics. Most egregiously, Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad, allegedly sponsors the assassinations of civilian scientists in Iran.

Compared to another large-scale military conflict in the Middle East, a program of sabotage and targeted killings may seem like a relatively responsible method of delaying Iran’s putative nuclear ambitions. Ultimately, however, these assassinations are counterproductive to American and Israeli interests, not least of all because they are simply an indefensible use of lethal force.

The accusations are shocking: Many believe that Israel supports the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), which the United States formally designates as a terrorist organization, to murder civilian scientists in Iran who have no proven ties to an active weapons program.

In January 2010, a nuclear physics professor at Tehran University was killed when a motorcycle bomb detonated outside of his home. In November 2010, two separate car bombs killed a nuclear engineer and wounded another scientist, Fereydoun Abbasi, who now heads Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization. Two gunmen on motorcycles shot an engineering student outside of his daughter’s kindergarten in July 2011. Most recently, in January, a motorcycle bomber killed another scientist in Tehran.

Israel, of course, does not accept official responsibility for these assassinations, but denials are often issued with a smirk. In contrast, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rejected accusations of “any United States involvement in any kind of act of violence inside Iran,” echoing condemnations from other American officials of violence against civilians. Given America’s covert involvement in the Middle Eastern countries over the decades, however, such denials are not considered ironclad.

Admittedly, civilian scientists’ lives are not always sacrosanct. During World War II, American and British forces launched a bombing campaign called Operation Crossbow to neutralize German scientists — including the ever-controversial future NASA-whiz Wernher von Braun — who were developing long-range weapons like the V-2 rocket that terrorized British innocents. Thousands of civilian scientists staffed the Manhattan Project, and Los Alamos certainly would have been a target for the Japanese military had it had the capacity to reach it.

These targeted scientists shared two things. First, they were actively involved in the development of weapons to kill other people; second, killing the scientists would have delayed weapons production and saved lives. No public evidence proves that either of these criteria applies to the Iranian scientists who are currently being murdered.

Granted, intelligence from within Iran is murky and extremely difficult to collect. But according to a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, Iran halted nuclear weapons development in the fall of 2003, although it could still restart the program. The consensus of intelligence analysts willing to speak on the record is still that Iran’s leaders have not yet decided to build a nuclear bomb. No scientist can be condemned for working on a nuclear weapons program if no such program exists.

So, people who publicly claim that Iranian scientists deserve assassination must support a death sentence for the mere technical aptitude to contribute to a weapons program, should one materialize. This is patent nonsense — imagine the outrage if someone made such a claim about American or Israeli citizens.

And does killing Iranian scientists deter Iranian leaders from pursuing a bomb? Almost certainly, no.

It only bolsters Iran’s rationale: In their eyes, Israeli agents will feel free to kill Iranians until a suitable deterrence is developed. Furthermore, murdering a few scientists and destroying factories may be relatively easy, but obliterating technical knowledge is nearly impossible. If the technical capability of Iran were truly threatened, scientists would be hidden and protected.

Force will not stop Iran from building a nuclear bomb, unless the United States military decides to invade and occupy — a certain disaster and as yet a political impossibility. Israel, most likely, does not have the military capability to destroy all potential targets within Iran, so any attack would do nothing more than delay a newly determined Iran.

President Obama often declares that all options are on the table for dealing with Iran. Allowing all options, unfortunately, may excuse some terrible things. Assassinating civilian scientists during peace is not an acceptable substitute for war. Though America also lacks unimpeachable moral authority, every diplomatic pressure should be applied to convince Israel to halt these killings, for Israel’s own sake.

Joseph O’Rourke is a senior in Silliman College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at joseph.orourke@yale.edu.


  • The Anti-Yale

    People are evil. Even Americans. That’s why we have COMMANDMENTS and HELL (or, we USED to have hell) the fear of which enforces those big-time biblical orders.

  • yayasisterhood

    *”Most egregiously, Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad, allegedly sponsors the assassinations of civilian scientists in Iran.”*

    Nuclear scientists in Iran are not civilians, and they are acting in violation of international law. A nuclear Iran would destabilize the entire Middle East, pose an existential threat to Israel, and threaten the security of the United States. The author would do well to take his head out of the sand.

    • SY10

      “Nuclear scientists in Iran are not civilians, and they are acting in violation of international law. ”

      If international law is your justification, would Iran withdrawing from the NPT destroy the rationale for these assassinations (producing the odd conclusion that the way to protect one’s country citizens is by refusing to accede to widely accepted international treaties)? Because, if not, you do realize that this same logic would justify the assassination of Israeli nuclear scientists (and Indian, Pakistani, and North Korean nuclear scientists, though I imagine you wouldn’t be bothered by that, at least in the latter two cases), don’t you? In fact, the argument would be far stronger, since Israeli nuclear scientists, unlike Iranian ones, clearly and definitively are involved in producing nuclear weapons; nuclear power, of course, does not violate international law in any way.

      Of course, I imagine your real justification is that Iran is our enemy and thus is not allowed to do the same things we and our allies are, and campaign of murder and assassination are the appropriate response if they try to. To which I can only say that, when our enemies use that logic, we justifiably call their actions “state-sponsored terrorism.” Perhaps we should try to avoid having that label become applicable to us as well.

  • public_editor

    “These targeted scientists shared two things. First, they were actively involved in the development of weapons to kill other people; second, killing the scientists would have delayed weapons production and saved lives. No public evidence proves that either of these criteria applies to the Iranian scientists who are currently being murdered.”

    Mr. O’Rourke completely trip over yourself with this statement. He asserts that scientists can be killed if they’re actively involved in weapons programs, but claims that the fact that there’s no consensus as to whether Iran is seeking a nuclear bomb makes the weapons program definitionally peaceful. What matter less is evidence of nuclear bomb production than the intentions of the Iranian leadership. As O’Rourke claims, Iran “could still restart the program” at any time. Thus, if the ultimate intention of Iranian leadership is to seek a bomb (which Israel believes), these civilian scientists are involved in de facto military activity: they are supplementing Iran’s nuclear knowledge, which will eventually be used in the creation of nuclear weapons (which, presumably, will require these same scientists to pursue).

  • Arafat

    I’m confident Mr. O’Rourke would also have smirked at Hitler’s pre-war threats to exterminate the Jews for it’s easy for an Irishman to do so. He, nor they, have any real skin in the game.

  • Arafat

    Which begs the question: If the UK made repeated genocidal threats against Ireland would Mr. O’Rourke be whistling the same tune?

    • Frashizzle

      To make your comparison fair, you should be using Northern Ireland. Also, for a completely fair comparison, the US would have had to give nuclear weapons to the IRA before Great Britian had them and then tried to hide it. Just saying.

  • ckonscider_this

    Excellent column. Don’t listen to people who draw false analogies to make this situation more murky and morally ambiguous — you’ve written a well thought out column that calls for a higher moral standard and questions acts that should be questioned (as evidenced by the fact that neither Israel nor the US will publicly acknowledge involvement). We SHOULD call for a higher level of morality from our government (and from Israel, a country almost unconditionally supported by the US), and part of that is questioning acts that are morally reprehensible and show a complete lack of transparency. Good job — and don’t give too much mind to the comments calling for blood.

  • Undergrad

    I applaud your courage in writing this column. I’m not sure I agree on the part about Iran’s nuclear program being unproven, but killing scientists just because they could conceivably be part of such a program, in a country we are not even at war with, is a really cowardly tactic, and sets a dangerous precedent for a future in which civilian scientists are routinely hunted down.

  • River_Tam

    O’Rourke first states that these are only allegations, not proven facts.

    And then proceeds to write the rest of the column as if these allegations are true.

  • MikeConrad

    Iran, a signatory to the NPT, surrounded by nuclear powers on all sides (including the US in Iraq and Afghanistan) should not be permitted to contemplate nuclear power in any form! Israel, of course, the only nuclear power in its neighborhood, doesn’t have to sign the NPT, allow inspectors, or anything of the kind. Some are more equal than others! And if you doubt this, simply look at how the pronouncements from one (Iran) are exaggerated in the U.S. media while similar ones from the other (Israel) are generally not reported at all.

  • Arafat

    Let’s ignore the fact that Israel has likely had nuclear weapons since the 1970s and has never threatened to use them nor used them.

    Let’s ignore the fact that countless Muslim leaders, Imams and others have both called for and done their best to eliminate Israel.

    The difference between Hitler and Ahmadinejad, or the other dozens who call for Israel’s desturction, is not significant. But the difference between Israeli Jews – and their values – and these genocidal men could not be greater.

  • RexMottram08

    Peace in our time only lasts until Poland is invaded…

    Iran and Israel are not moral equivalents.