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.
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.