Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

Iran Scientist Assassinations Serve No End

| January 14, 2012

MOSTAFA AHMADI-ROSHAN, the Iranian nuclear scientist who was killed this week in Tehran, was 32 years old, with a wife and young son. He was stuck in the city's notorious traffic, on his way home, when his car exploded.

His dramatic slaying was carried out by a nation that is not, repeat, is not the United States. We have categorically denied, and then categorically denounced, any involvement in Ahmadi-Roshan's death or that of four other dead Iranian scientists. Condemnation may not be enough. Whoever is killing all these Iranian scientists, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has "some ideas" on who it could be, is performing a hopeless variation of regime change. It rests on the false assumption that one, or a few, men hold the elusive keys that will allow Iran to join the nuclear arms race.

If this is Israel's doing, they win style points for using motorcycle-driving, bomb-placing renegades who disappear into crowded streets in broad daylight. Their victims, however, aren't global terror masterminds: They're ordinary scientists with unimpressive titles like "deputy director for commercial affairs."

The thinking behind these killings is dangerously simplistic, as if Tehran's nuclear ambitions were dependent on a single scholar just out of grad school. Nuclear programs, after all, are large and expensive efforts involving hundreds of people. Just maybe, one or two killings could delay the efforts. Maybe the fear of assassination would deter some future scientists from joining government programs assuming they have a choice. But it won't stop the mission.

"It is difficult to imagine a country having a scientific infrastructure large enough to support a nuclear weapons program, but too small to sustain a viable effort after the loss of even several individuals," William Tobey, a former nuclear expert who has served in senior positions in the US government, recently wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Even allowing for the fact that atomic scientists have a vested interest in minimizing the significance of atomic scientists to deter assassinations, a few deaths here or there isn't going to change history.

And the ultimate goal of the global community shouldn't be blocking Iran’s nuclear program for the time being — it should be ending Iran's urgent desire to create nuclear weapons. The tough new sanctions that cut into Iran's revenues from oil exports may result in a popular uprising against Iran's fractured leadership, but the more likely consequence is they will convince Iran's leaders that they can no longer sustain being a global pariah.

Reinforcing the harms of that pariah status is a far smarter approach than picking off scientists. Defenders of the killings claim they are a means of avoiding all-out war. The same politicians and pundits that brought us the Iraq war don't seem to take into account that Iranians may instead feel a strong sense of belligerency under the threat of being killed off with glee. (Presidential candidate Rick Santorum called the assassinations "wonderful.")

Other politicians and pundits glibly compare such actions to America's use of drones; but drone warfare against armed militants in theaters of war is quite different. Our justifiably angry response to accusations last year that Iran was planning the assassination of the Saudi ambassador in America gives some hint of the difference.

Reports last week that Iran has agreed to talks with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany are still tenuous, but a hopeful sign nonetheless. That they came the same week as Ahmadi-Roshan's murder is merely a coincidence. The killing of a single deputy director for commercial affairs is merely a footnote compared to the sustained effort of global sanctions combined with diplomacy that provides the only viable long-term solution.

Ahmadi-Roshan was likely as expendable to the Iranians as he was to whoever plotted his death. That suggests why Iran seems so incapable of protecting its allegedly high-value scientists. He was, in the end, of no consequence to the real issues at play. His murder should be condemned because it is brutal and gets us no closer to a meaningful resolution of Iran's nuclear ambitions. Any sense of victory is as fleeting as the very men who placed magnetic bombs on the sides of Ahmadi-Roshan's gray Peugeot 405 as they passed it on a crowded Tehran street just a few days ago.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Kayyem, Juliette.“Iran Scientist Assassinations Serve No End.” The Boston Globe, January 14, 2012.

The Author

Juliette Kayyem