Iran’s alleged militaristic nuclear capabilities have placed the country at the centre of the world’s political stage. The nation’s nuclear scientists have been assassinated and the identities of their assassins remain unknown.
The most recent victim of these attacks was Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, a chemist who worked at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in Iran’s Isfahan province. Roshan’s death marks the fifth time in two years that a scientist from the state nuclear program has been targeted. He was reportedly killed by a magnetic bomb placed in his car last month, in the same manner as four other nuclear scientists in the past years. The explosion was reported to have been caused by a targeted, focused device: intended to kill one or two people, and small enough to not be heard from afar.
A Trend of Assassinations
Working for Iran’s nuclear program has come to be equated with a state of constant insecurity: assassinations, kidnappings and sabotaged equipment are commonplace. Additionally, computer viruses have destroyed information networks and there have been numerous unexplained explosions at nuclear sites, missile testing grounds, refineries and pipelines.
The first Iranian scientist to be targeted in this series of assassinations, Masoud Ali Mohammadi, was killed on January 2010 by a bomb on a parked motorcycle. He was a follower of the opposition Green movement, and a senior official for the Institute of Applied Physics (IAP), where a significant amount of nuclear research is believed to be carried out.
The next attacks had two targets and occurred on November 2010. The victims were Majid Shahriari, another scientist in the nuclear program, and Fereydoun Abbasi Davani, an IAP official. Davani is the only survivor to date of this string of attacks, and is the current head of the overall Iranian atomic program.
Dariush Rezaeinejad was the fourth target. Rezaeinejad was an electronics expert for the nuclear program before he was shot by unknown gunmen on motorcycles.
The most recent attack, on Roshan, was an exact replication of the attacks on Shahriari and Davani, even down to the model of the victim’s car: silver Peugeot 405s. These scientist’s deaths were no coincidence, it appears.
Iran’s Strained Political Relations
The US and Israel unequivocally oppose Iran and its nuclear policies. The US and its allies have been pressuring Iran to halt its uranium enrichment, a key element of the nuclear program, because they are concerned that Iran is attempting to produce atomic weapons in secret. Uranium enriched to low levels can be used as nuclear fuel, but at higher levels it can be used as material for nuclear warheads.
Iran has consistently denied—and continues to deny—any attempts to manufacture nuclear weapons, asserting that its program is peaceful and geared only toward generating electricity.
Despite Iran’s continued denial, however, the EU is currently discussing sanctions to the country’s oil exports. The USA is leading this global campaign to hinder Iranian oil exports, in an attempt to stop Iran’s nuclear program.
Many countries, however, are wary that halting their purchases of Iranian crude oil could badly hurt their own economies. Iran has already received the support of both Japan and China in opposition to imposed embargoes. Iran has also threatened to close the Gulf’s narrowest point, the Strait of Hormuz—an export route for 20% of the world’s oil supply—if its oil exports are embargoed. Yet this move on Iran’s part would drastically hurt its own economy and would be a desperate measure.
The USA is motivated to push these economic pressure tactics because of a November report by the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which documents “credible evidence” of Iran’s experimentation with nuclear weapons design.
In response to this report, Iran invited IAEA inspectors to inspect its nuclear plants to discuss any “possible military dimensions” of the nuclear program. Clearly, Iran is willing to cooperate up to this point, and a team of inspectors made its way to Iran for a three-day visit to investigate the matter on January 29.
The Natanz nuclear facility, which reportedly has 8000 centrifuges in operation, is one of two facilities that is enriching uranium in Iran. In January, the IAEA identified the second in the mountains of Qom province. The IAEA also announced that Iran is currentlyenriching uranium to 20% purity at a previously secret facility. Iran has been criticized by the UN for enriching significantly more uranium than needed for civilian use—its current stocks are enough to provide the Tehran Nuclear Reactor with enough fuel for the next 4 to 5 years. The combination of these revelations has increased western criticism and suspicion of the breadth of Iran’s nuclear program, and increased tensions between Iran and the US.
According to current and former officials, the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has repeatedly employed covert means to slow the Iranian nuclear program over past years, including by supplying faulty parts and encouraging nuclear scientists such as Shahram Amiri to defect. While responsibility for the Stuxnet computer virus, which infected and disrupted control of some Iranian centrifuges in 2010, has not been formally taken, many cyber-security experts have put the US and Israel on a very limited list of nations thought capable of creating the virus and of the complexity of the “incredibly precise” attack itself.
Iran has blamed both Israel and the USA for the assassinations, and both countries have denied these accusations. However, Israel has consistently created an impression that it is, in part, responsible for the violence and sabotage, without taking formal responsibility for them.
Israel’s military chief of staff Benny Gantz recently commented that 2012 “will be a critical year in the connection between Iran gaining nuclear power, changes in leadership, continuing pressure from the international community, and events that happen unnaturally."
As this comment preceded the attack of Roshan by a mere day, it has been taken by many as a hint of Israel’s links to the attacks; observers equating the “unnatural events” with the scientist assassinations.
This involvement has precedent. Israel has a history of eliminating enemies abroad—the Munich Olympic attack of 1972 and the assassination of senior Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabouh in 2010 come to mind. Some have also sepculated that Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, has been recruiting Iranian dissidents in Iraq, to conduct operations in Iran.
Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian-American Council, believes that committing these attacks has no downside for Israel. According to her, if Iran decides to retaliate, that could be all the reason Israel needs to take military action.
Parsi told CNN that the assassinations do not match the kind of activity that USA intelligence would carry out in a country where there is no declared state of war. Further, an executive order dating back to Ford’s presidency prevents the CIA from carrying out political assassinations. Exceptions have only been made for those organizations and affiliated individuals that the US has been at war with, such as the Taliban. Indeed, it would appear that the US intends to pressurize Iran solely through attempted economic sanctions instead.
There has also been speculation, both within Iran and internationally, that the assassinations were carried out by the Iranian government to eliminate nuclear scientists suspected of disloyalty. One reason for this speculation is the mode of the attacks: in the past, the Iranian government has had a penchant for employing motorcycles in its own “exterminations.” Another reason is the scientists’ political loyalties; Mohammadi, for one, belonged to the opposition Green movement. Moreover, if the state is aware of its valuable scientists being targeted, why has it not increased protection for them?
Finally the similar nature of these attacks hints at the involvement of an internal network. Each attack occurred at midday, among civilian crowds, and the perpetrators made clean getaways each time.
Apart from the Iranian government, these details hint at the involvement of another elaborate on-ground network. An group such as Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MeK) would provide such a network and Israel’s cooperation with this terrorist group cannot be ruled out. Still, as MeK is on the US list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, it would be a poor political move on Israel’s part.
Nevertheless, many political speculators chalk up the attacks to Israel’s attemps to coerce Iran into back down in its nuclear power production.
But has the intended effect been achieved? Iran’s Vice-President Mohammed Reza Rahimi told state television that the violence would not stop “progress” in the country’s nuclear program, and called the assassinations “evidence of [foreign] government sponsored terrorism.”
Indeed, observers of the Iranian nuclear program have commented that these assassinations will not incur major setbacks for the country’s nuclear program, but will increase civilian insecurity, and it will deter Iranian scientists from working on the program. But the effects also hold the potential to transcend the local: as Iran-US relations remain strained, there is a possibility for escalation and a very real risk of confrontation between Israel and Iran. At this point, however, the IAEA team’s findings will be a key determinant for Iran, Israel and the USA’s subsequent actions.