From digital weapons to economic sanctions, opponents of Iran’s growing nuclear program have made extensive efforts to arrest its development. Their campaign has been largely unsuccessful thus far, however; earlier this month, a top Iranian nuclear official announced the impending commencement of production at a second uranium enrichment plant. Having exhausted more conventional options, experts are now suggesting that the employment of covert operations may be the latest in international attempts to deter Iran from pursuing its nuclear activity.
Talk of covert action came in the wake of the death of an Iranian nuclear scientist. Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan was riding in a Peugeot 405 in Northern Tehran on Wednesday morning, January 11, when two motorcyclists slapped a magnetic bomb on his passenger door. The bomb detonated instantly, leaving Roshan dead and his bodyguard-driver mortally wounded. It is said that the scientist was scheduled to attend a memorial ceremony later Wednesday to commemorate the unnatural demise of his former colleague, Massoud Ali Mohammadi, in an explosion almost exactly two years ago.
Besides for the mysterious circumstances of the bombing, analysts have called upon other particulars of the incident that point in the direction of an assassination. Roshan held a prominent position at Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment plant; he served as the deputy director of commercial affairs and had the important task of procuring materials for the program. According to Amir Oren of Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, the targeting of such an official removed what would prove to be an invaluable Iranian resource in the event that an airstrike were to be conducted in the future. “These [nuclear scientists], some of whom are being blown up, would certainly feature in the West’s target bank after an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, if one is carried out, to head off efforts to restore the program,” explained Oren in a recent op-ed. “The West would do this to impede the rebuilding of what would remain in ruins for years.”
Oren was alluding to the other nuclear scientists who have died in similarly suspect fashion in recent years. According to news media, the latest incident with Roshan marked the killing of the fifth Iranian scientist with nuclear connections since 2007, and came less than two months after a suspicious explosion at an Iranian missile base that killed a top general and sixteen others. The Iranian reaction to Wednesday’s incident amounted to no less than an explicit accusation that the bombing was an extension of prior campaigns. “The bomb was a magnetic one and the same as the ones previously used for the assassination of the scientists and is the work of terrorists,” said Tehran’s deputy governor, Safar Ali Baratlou.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran expresses its deep concern over, and lodges its strong condemnation of, such cruel, inhumane and criminal acts of terrorism against the Iranian scientists,” wrote Iran’s U.N. ambassador in a letter to the secretary general Ban Ki-Moon and other U.N. officials, confirming this position. As the international community continues to search for the culprit, the United States, Israel, and even Iran have found themselves the objects of intense scrutiny and pointed accusations.
The United States responded to allegations of its involvement in the latest incident in clear terms. “The U.S. had absolutely nothing to do with this [latest bombing]. We strongly condemn all acts of violence, including acts of violence like what is being reported,” stated Tommy Vietor, the spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reinforced this notion when she “categorically” denied “any U.S. involvement in any act of violence inside Iran.”
In a telephone interview with the Jewish Voice, George Schwab of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy expressed the general position of the U.S. towards Iran. “The United States will continue to use covert and overt means to support forces of democracy,” said Schwab. “Though the deleterious nature of Iran’s nuclear program is still speculation to a certain extent, the U.S. will resume its advocacy for the strengthening of sanctions, the usage of cyber-tools, and other means.” Recent reports have intimated that American interests may have also played a role in the recent killing of Roshan.
In a letter to the Swiss ambassador in Tehran on Saturday, the Iranian foreign ministry stated that further investigation into the incident has incriminated the U.S. and the Central Intelligence Agency. “We have reliable documents and evidence that this terrorist act was planned, guided, and supported by the CIA,” read the letter. “The documents clearly show that this terrorist act was carried out with the direct involvement of CIA-linked agents.”
The report came as a surprise to media sources that had overwhelmingly implicated Israel. “I don’t know who took revenge on the Iranian scientist, but I am definitely not shedding a tear,” Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai callously remarked on his Facebook page following the bombing. When Iranians began talk of striking back against Israelis, it seemed as if the killing of Roshan was clearly being labeled an Israeli operation. “We should retaliate against Israel for the martyring of our young scientist,” wrote Hossein Shariatmadari of Iran’s Keyhan newspaper in a column. “These corrupted [Israelis] are easily identifiable and readily within our reach.” Without issuing a categorical denial of involvement, Israel was assumed to be the culprit.
Still, the question of who conducted the assassination has remained open. The juxtaposition of Israel and the United States in Iranian media suggested that some might believe that a collaborative covert enterprise may be underway. “America and Israel’s heinous act will not change the course of the Iranian nation,” read a statement from Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization following the incident.
Others have even posited that the covert operation may have been executed by the Iranian government. Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, noted that those killed “show[ed] sympathy for the Iranian opposition,” as it was put by one media source.
“I think there is reason to doubt the idea that all the hits have been carried out by Israel,” explained Sadjadpour shortly after the bombing. “It’s very puzzling that Iranian nuclear scientists, whose movements are likely carefully monitored by the state, can be executed in broad daylight, sometimes in rush-hour traffic, and their culprits never found.”
Regardless of whether the incident stemmed from American, Israeli, or Iranian intelligence, it is clear that it has ignited increasing discussion concerning the efficacy of such covert operations and the potential backlash they might inspire from Iran.
“Sabotage and assassination is the way to go, if you can do it,” opined Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It doesn’t provoke a nationalist reaction in Iran, which could strengthen the regime. And it allows Iran to climb down if it decides the cost of pursuing a nuclear weapon is too high.”
According to a former senior Israeli security official, who spoke under anonymity, the essential component of covert operations is their opacity. “You can’t prove it, so you can’t retaliate,” he explained. Since the perpetrator cannot be identified with absolute certainty, violent and vitriolic reactions cannot be waged. “When it’s very, very clear who’s behind the attack, the world behaves differently… I think the cocktail of diplomacy, of sanctions, of covert activity might [be effective].”
Andrew Cummings outlined what an effective covert campaign might entail in the Guardian. “Covert action creates the time and space for pressure to build, while reducing the need for military action,” he clarifies.
“Ultimately, covert action should be aimed at bringing enough pressure to bear on Iran’s leaders so that they understand they will never reach their goal of being a nuclear power.” The general praise from the media of such activity was succinctly summarized in an editorial that appeared in the Daily Telegraph. “Whatever the moral considerations… the covert campaign appears to be the most effective means of delaying the Iranian’s progress.”