01.13.12

Has Israel Been Killing Iran’s Nuclear Scientists?

Circumstantial evidence suggests the Mossad is responsible for a string of slayings of Iran’s nuclear experts, most recently Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan. At the very least Israel’s defense establishment would like allies to believe its spies have pulled off these “events that happen unnaturally.”

Six weeks ago in Washington, on the sidelines of a major U.S.-Israeli meeting known as the “strategic dialogue,” Israeli Mossad officers were quietly and obliquely bragging about the string of explosions in Iran. “They would say things like, ‘It’s not the best time to be working on Iranian missile design,’” one U.S. intelligence official at the December parley told The Daily Beast.

Those comments were a reference to a string of explosions at a missile-testing site outside Tehran on November 12. The explosions killed Maj. Gen. Hassan Moqqadam, the head of the country’s missile program. But the manner in which the message was delivered—informally and on the sidelines of an official discussion—also speaks to how Israel appears to seek to create the impression of responsibility for acts of violence and sabotage inside Iran without quite taking formal responsibility.

These kinds of actions even have their own Israeli euphemism, “events that happen unnaturally,” to quote the Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, from his remarks before the Knesset on Tuesday. In his testimony, Gantz promised more such unnatural events in 2012 aimed at thwarting Iran’s nuclear program.

All told, five Iranian scientists or engineers affiliated with the nuclear program have been killed since 2007, the latest being Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, who Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency says was responsible for procurement at the Natanz enrichment facility. A sixth, Fereydoon Abbasi, survived an assassination attempt in 2010 and is now the head of Iran’s atomic energy agency.

William Tobey, a former deputy administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration and a National Security Council specialist on nuclear issues, said four of the six attacks on the scientists since 2007 used magnetic limpet bombs that would be attached to a vehicle carrying the target.

Tobey, who just published a paper on the assassinations for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, would not speculate on the country responsible for the attacks, but Patrick Clawson, the director of research at the Washington Institute for Near Policy, said the signs point to Israel.

“This sophisticated technique is uncharacteristic of the Iranian armed opposition and the Iranian government, it is characteristic of the Mossad,” he said. “I am unaware of episodes when Americans and Europeans have done this kind of assassination. Of course, the Americans are involved in assassinations using predators, but not this kind of operation with agents on the ground, the natural suspect is the Mossad.”

A former Mossad officer now living in Canada who goes by the pseudonym Michael Ross said the attacks bore the hallmarks of an Israeli operation. “This tactic is not a new one for the Mossad, and worked very effectively against Egypt’s rocket program in the 1960s. During that period, the scientists involved in that project were assassinated and the program suffered immensely.”

The United States and Israel have cooperated on intelligence-gathering in Iran as well as, in some cases, sabotage operations such as the 2009 Stuxnet cyber attack that stymied the logic board that controlled the spinning centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment facility. Much of this kind of cooperation intensified in George W. Bush’s second term.

One document that hints to this cooperation is a diplomatic cable from Aug. 17, 2007 disclosed first by WikiLeaks that details a conversation between then Mossad chief Meir Dagan and then undersecretary of state for political affairs, Nicholas Burns.

The cable says there are five pillars to Israel’s approach to Iran: “Political Approach,” “Covert Measure,” “Counter-proliferation,” “Sanctions,” and “Force Regime Change.” Under the section of the memo that deals with “covert action,” there is this tantalizing sentence: “Dagan and the Under Secretary agreed not to discuss this approach in the larger group setting.”

While covert action can cover a range of activities, it’s highly unlikely the United States would participate in the assassinations of scientists.

On Wednesday, for example, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton categorically denied U.S. involvement in the murder, and condemned the act of violence and expressed sympathy to Roshan’s family. “With respect to the assassinations in Iran, I think you can take to the bank Secretary Clinton’s statement that the United States had nothing to do with it,” Tobey said.

One of the potential problems with assassinating scientists and engineers is that little is known about many of the new people in the Iranian nuclear program.

“We really don’t know the roles of all of these guys; some of them are fairly young,” said Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. “We don’t know exactly what their jobs are.”

A former Mossad officer now living in Canada said the attacks bore the hallmarks of an Israeli operation.

Heinonen and Tobey are now both senior fellows at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. Heinonen also said the Iranians have built “redundancy into the system,” meaning there are other scientists and engineers ready to take the place of those that are killed. “It disturbs the process, it doesn’t solve the problem,” Heinonen said.

Tobey also said there were problems with using assassinations as a means of counter-proliferation. “I think it has real drawbacks,” he said. “It can slow a nuclear program, but it can’t stop it, in all likelihood. Any country that has a large enough scientific base to sustain a nuclear weapons program probably is not vulnerable to crippling the programs in killing a small number of individuals. It’s very difficult to know who is key to the program, and that changes over time.”