The Magazine

Antinuclear Assassinations

Who is killing the nuke scientists of Iran? Whoever it is should be thanked.

Feb 20, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 22 • By JAMES KIRCHICK
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But that’s not how some analysts in Washington see it. They believe, in the words of the Atlantic’s Robert Wright, that “Israel is trying to start a war with Iran,” a war that, given Washington’s security commitments to Israel, will engulf America whether it wants any part of it or not. Many pushing this narrative have pointed to a story published last month in Foreign Policy by former Palestinian Liberation Organization adviser Mark Perry alleging that Israeli Mossad agents, posing as CIA operatives, had secretly recruited members of the Pakistani-based Sunni terrorist group Jundallah to kill the Iranian scientists. Perry quoted a variety of retired American intelligence officials “sputtering in frustration” that a “false flag” operation would embroil the United States in a war against Iran, should Israel choose to start one. 

This analysis, such as it is, inverts reality. It is not Israel that, for three decades, has been threatening to “wipe Iran off the map.” It is not Israel that has funded a variety of terrorist groups to shoot rockets into Iranian neighborhoods. Israel has no territorial claims against Iran and had good diplomatic relations with Tehran prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The genocidal rhetoric coming out of Tehran is not some belated reaction to stalled peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. As far back as 1982, the Iranian Foreign Ministry distributed a publication with, on the cover, “Israel Must Be Destroyed.”

Iran’s behavior, externally aggressive and domestically totalitarian, means little to writers who act as if the motives and actions of the United States and its allies are just as morally suspect as those of the theocrats in Tehran. “The United States was rightly outraged by Iran’s plot to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington; but what about the targeted assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists?” the Daily Beast’s Andrew Sullivan recently asked. “If Iran started assassinating American scientists, would we not make a stink?” In 2007, blogging for the Washington Monthly, Kevin Drum asserted, “After all, killing civilian scientists and civilian leaders, even if you do it quietly, is unquestionably terrorism. That’s certainly what we’d consider it if Hezbollah fighters tried to kill cabinet undersecretaries and planted bombs at the homes of Los Alamos engineers.” One can imagine a time not long ago when likening the duties of American cabinet undersecretaries to the duties of those working on nuclear projects for an enemy regime would once have struck most people, liberals and conservatives alike, as ludicrous. Now, it’s common fare among an increasingly vocal strain of progressive-realist commentators. 

It is this moral equivalence—between the actions of the United States and a regime that pledges to wipe Israel off the map—that has led some to paint Israel as the aggressor. The assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists is “the murder of people who may be involved in nothing more than legitimate scientific research,” writes Daniel Larison of the American Conservative (it must be a very special type of “legitimate scientific research” that requires it to be conducted in a James Bond villain-esque facility built into the side of a mountain). “To ascribe genocidal motives to civilian scientists is to look inside a person’s soul and know something we cannot know,” Sullivan laments over the death of Roshan. But one doesn’t have to look into the soul of Iranian nuclear scientists to find potential “genocidal motives.” Roshan was working on a nuclear program, much of it clandestine, on behalf of a regime that has repeatedly expressed its desire to “wipe” another nation “off the map.” 

There are no good options in dealing with the Iranian nuclear program. Oil and gas sanctions, which may prove effective in bringing the regime to its knees, will nonetheless have a painful effect on the Iranian people. Bombing Iranian nuclear facilities could result in massive missile strikes on Israel and American assets in the Persian Gulf, ignite conflict between Israel and Iranian proxies Hamas and Hezbollah, and spur terrorist attacks on Jewish targets around the world. And the prospect of a nuclear weapons-equipped Iran is ghastly to contemplate. Rather than condemn those who killed Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan and other participants in the Iranian nuclear program, anyone who wants peace in the Middle East should be thanking them.

James Kirchick is a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributing editor to the New Republic.

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