The suspected assassination of yet another scientist linked to Iran’s nuclear program is renewing questions over whether such attempts will slow enrichment efforts, or push Iranian leaders to more aggressively pursue their nuclear ambitions.
But how is all this playing out in Iran?
On Wednesday, a Tehran bomb blast killed Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, who served as deputy director of commercial affairs at the Natanz nuclear facility. According to official Iranian media, a man on a motorcycle stuck a magnetic bomb to Roshan’s car as the 32-year-old was leaving his home. Two men who were accompanying Roshan were also injured in the blast. It marks the seventh attempt on the lives of Iran’s nuclear-program employees and the sixth death.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton “categorically denied any U.S. involvement in any act of violence in Iran. “The United States had absolutely nothing to do with this,” stated Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
Iranian officials immediately pointed the finger at the U.S. and Israel. Just two months ago, when a deadly explosion at an Iranian missile complex caused the death of a top Iran commander and 16 others, a number of analysts did not rule out the possibility of foreign involvement and sabotage.
“Today on the nuclear energy scene, [the] U.S. and Zionism have chosen the lowest methods of blind assassination of our nuclear scientists, and think that with assassinating these scientists and making them martyrs they can prevent our nuclear advancement,” Rostam Ghasemi, Iran’s oil minister and a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, said Thursday. “The martyrdom of our nuclear scientists leads to further commitment of our people and scientists to the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
“I think the assassination of an Iranian citizen is a blatant act of terrorism perpetuated by experts in targeted assassinations, and it has to be categorically denounced,” Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian Studies at Columbia University told The Daily Beast. “These scientists are national treasures. This is an egregious act of violation of many different rights, to infiltrate into a sovereign state and to assassinate its citizens.”
“The United Nations has to intervene. Any civilized country has to intervene. And the [Israelis] claim to be the only democracy in the region?! That’s insane!,” he added.
In the U.S., killing Iranian scientists in order to slow down Iran’s nuclear program has been a strategy advocated by a number of Republican presidential candidates.
At a campaign event in October, Rick Santorum endorsed the idea. “On occasion, scientists working on the nuclear program in Iran turn up dead. I think that’s a wonderful thing, candidly.” Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has also approved of the killing of Iranian scientists. But how might it affect Iran’s nuclear program?
“I don’t believe a program on such a large scale as Iran’s nuclear program is eliminated or slowed down as a result of the elimination of some individuals,” Gholamhossein Karbaschi, the former Tehran mayor and a close ally of reformist leader Mehdi Karroubi, told The Daily Beast. “It does have a psychological effect, but it will not have an impact in the nuclear program itself. Its psychological effect is not favorable, either, as people hate the perpetrators.”
“However way you look at terror, people hate it, no matter where in the world it happens, especially if an innocent young individual suffers this fate. This is what people oppose vehemently,” Karbaschi added.
A journalist in Tehran told The Daily Beast under the condition of anonymity that he was shocked when he heard news of the assassination. “When I talk to people, they feel insulted that a foreign state would come and murder an Iranian citizen to cheers and nods from others,” he said. “These assassinations are a great gift to the Iranian government and military, who can now push their agendas forward with them. The Iranian government could not be helped any better; it can now present its nuclear program as legitimate and to cry foul.”
Mohsen Sazegara, an influential opposition figure based in Washington who has advocated civil disobedience against the Iranian government, said that although American, British, and Israeli authorities deny any involvement in these operations, Tehran considers sabotage and the assassinations acts of Western intelligence services and Israel’s Mossad. He said such incidents are very telling about Iran.
“Observing all of this, more than anything else, Iranian people see the Iranian intelligence apparatus’s weakness,” said Sazegara. “The same Intelligence Ministry and [Revolutionary Guards] that on a daily basis arrest and suppress workers, teachers, students, journalists, and different groups of the society, are incapable of protecting top-secret facilities and their employees.”
But pro-democracy forces in Iran, which have been under extreme pressure since the disputed 2009 presidential election, say the assassinations are likely to backfire against the West—enhancing the military state by legitimizing the nuclear program in the eyes of the Iranian people. It doesn’t seem to matter to them if the Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization, an opposition group (known as the MKO) which is on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations, is responsible, or the Israelis, or anyone else.
Mohammad Ali Abtahi, who served as vice president under President Mohammad Khatami and was imprisoned for several months after the 2009 elections, told The Daily Beast that people consider such acts outside the realm of capabilities of opposition groups like the MKO.
“This type of operation looks more like it was done by Israelis,” said Abtahi, adding, “Iranian people would consider such an action as an insult, and to be honest, it would create more legitimacy for the military powers inside Iran.”
“In Iran, there is solidarity about national assets and reactions to such actions are very negative,” he added. “Even if the nuclear program’s increasing costs had started to damage its legitimacy, this would increase its legitimacy. It would generate an even higher demand inside the country to pursue the program.”