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 firstname.lastname@example.org.