At Large

Anatomy of Assassination

Who besides Israel and the U.S. would want to quash Iran's nuclear ambitions?

By 1.17.12

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It is clear that some entity is attempting to attack Iran's nuclear weapon development program through assassination of members of its scientific and administrative executive. This is tactical targeting in the extreme. It's also the most ancient form of political military warfare.

Covert activity in modern times against war-making industrial potential centered about the facilities themselves. Singling out individual scientists and key administrators indicates either a weakness in penetrating the internal physical structure of Iran's key nuclear operations or, oddly enough, quite the opposite. In this latter case the covert action against individuals could be a result of excellent intelligence on exactly those people whose intellectual input is so important as to act as the controlling factor in the development process.

From an Iranian counter-intelligence standpoint the tendency would be to judge that the information that led to the choice of a given set of human targets must be derived from assessments that were obtained from deep penetration of the Iranian nuclear program. The accumulation of such extensive and carefully guarded intelligence would be daunting and equaled only by the analysis and assessment of the information gathered.

Obviously, external observers such as the foreign press cannot make an informed judgment on the scope of validity of the intelligence product available to the entity directing the covert operations. Even trained technical experts differ on the relative importance of the several personalities who already have been successfully targeted. In the absence of specific information, however, various elements of the situation can be discerned through logical analysis.

Individual key-party assassination is a very dangerous weapon to employ in covert operations because it invites direct retribution of a similar type. This then establishes the basis for an escalation; a fact known to all covert action organizations, though non-state groups usually care little about issues of escalation. Actions by state-run agencies sometimes are used by their governments to invite counteraction. Such acts then are exploited as a justified provocation for an escalated response. If such is perceived as the case by Iran -- and the antagonist is believed to be Israel aided by the United States -- Iran logically would be constrained in order to avoid a full scale Israeli attack on Tehran's nuclear facilities. Such purposeful provocation is a tactic not unknown in the history of past non-nuclear conflicts.

The problem that Iranian counter-espionage strategists have is that the information on who holds important positions in their nuclear program actually has become well known in the international nuclear community. To add to this is that the identity of most of the scientists and high level technicians in the nuclear field is a matter of general knowledge within the Iranian academic and industrial community. It is just not that difficult to figure out who works where if one already is in the appropriate social/technical orbit. Iran's scientific and technological society is a rather tight fraternity -- and in some instances, sorority.

If the removal of one or several key minds from the Iranian program is the objective of these assassinations, it would suggest that the objective is, at the very least, to delay the progress of the nuclear program. But to suspect the so far relatively small number of killings would have a major impact on Iran's nuclear weapon development requires the assessment that Tehran has access to very few intellects capable of such activity. With the number of nuclear and akin discipline scientists available internationally who are willing to work for high pay, the latter circumstance seems beyond improbable.

One factor that certainly would not have been overlooked by Iranian security is the existence of a purely politically motivated internal faction that seeks to embarrass the current leadership. Hitting the regime through its highest profile secret program might be considered in anti-government terms to be the most effective form of public embarrassment that could be created. This would be so even if the assassinations do not have a serious impact on the nuclear weapon program as such. Indeed the internal dissidents might be connected to a foreign service -- or not.

Assassinations, such as those already accomplished in Iran, introduce an element of fear among scientific peers not only in the nuclear field but in similar sensitive industries. The killings, however, do not stop work except where the victim is technically irreplaceable. The value of assassination is that of a force multiplier: One can attain a possible result detrimental to the ultimate target (i.e. nuclear weapon development) at little cost materially or, in most instances, even politically. Assassination can be the ultimate sanction weapon short of any other military action.

While most Iranian public statements regarding the assassination of key individuals in the nuclear field focus on the Israelis, Americans, and sometimes the British, Tehran is aware that most Arab neighbors in the Middle East have considerable objections to Iran's nuclear weapon ambition. Wanting to avoid proliferation of these weapons in their region has been a well-known goal of the Saudis, the Gulf States, and Turkey. All these countries have a vested interest in any covert operations inhibiting Iran's growth as a military power. They can not be ruled out as at least collaborating in operations aimed at disrupting Iranian weapon development.

Iran decided to take on the entire Western world when it proceeded with its massive secret nuclear program. Why it would be surprised that every weapon -- including assassination -- would be used against it defies logic.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.