On January 11 in Tehran, two men on a motorcycle attached a magnetic bomb to the car carrying Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan. Seconds later, the car exploded, killing both Roshan and his driver. The murder was the stuff of spy novels, and would have been a spectacular story regardless of the target. But Roshan was not just any victim of a daring hit job: He was an Iranian nuclear scientist, the fourth to be assassinated in the past two years. Far from being an isolated incident, his death was clearly part of a trend.
The head of procurement for the Iranian regime’s Natanz uranium enrichment facility, Roshan is but the latest victim of the shadow war between Iran and its adversaries. No country or organization has claimed credit for the killing, though the likely suspects are limited to the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia or some combination of these countries, perhaps acting in concert with an Iran-based opposition group. For its part, the United States disavowed any role in the assassination. “I want to categorically deny any United States involvement in any kind of act of violence inside Iran,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. A spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces was characteristically coy. “I have no idea who targeted the Iranian scientist, but I certainly don’t shed a tear,” he said. Alongside action movie stuntman and lion tamer, it appears that the vocation of Iranian nuclear scientist is one of the most dangerous in the world.
This wouldn’t be the case were the Iranian regime transparent about its nuclear intentions. While Tehran says its program has a peaceful purpose, few people believe this, and for good reason. The latest report from the International Atomic Energy Agency, for instance, concludes that Tehran’s nuclear program is focused on attaining a bomb so that it will be able to strengthen its hand domestically and act with greater impunity across the region and around the world.
President Barack Obama and a succession of world leaders have spoken out against Iran’s obtaining a nuclear weapon; it is, in the president’s words, “unacceptable.” So one would think that the killing of a handful of nuclear scientists, as part of a broader attempt to slow down if not altogether stop Iran’s nuclear program, would be welcomed, particularly by those individuals most opposed to an Israeli strike on Iran, the prospect of which seems greater and greater by the day. Yet rather than embrace these assassinations as a relatively prudent way to prevent the possibility of a regional war, those who claim to want peace have denounced them.
“Iran’s nuclear scientists are not being assassinated,” declared New Statesman senior editor Mehdi Hasan in the Guardian. “They are being murdered.” If the United States was behind the assassination, asked Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, “does that mean President Obama is a Terrorist, a state sponsor of Terrorism or, at the very least, a supporter of Terrorism?” Writing in the Daily Beast, Wayne Barrett criticized Newt Gingrich’s “applauding the assassination of Iranian scientists” as a “far-out position.” Far from being an extreme view, however, applauding the death of Iranian nuclear scientists is something that everyone who abhors the prospect of a nuclear Iran should be doing. It might be the only thing standing in the way of an all-out regional war.
The logic behind this assassination campaign—and it should be reasonable to assume at this point that the deaths of these scientists are not isolated incidents—is not difficult to understand. Not only does killing Iranian nuclear scientists eliminate precious know-how, it also sends the message that working for the country’s nuclear program is dangerous; that, despite the prestige and benefits attached to the position, it is simply not worth the risks. According to Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman’s recent cover story in the New York Times Magazine, the Israeli Mossad refers to this phenomenon as “white defection,” that is, by making examples of prominent nuclear scientists, other researchers will be intimidated and shift to purely civilian projects.