by William Tobey
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
Five scientists and engineers connected with Iran’s nuclear program have been killed or injured in recent confirmed or possible assassination attempts. It is unclear who is responsible, but the attacks raise unique policy questions about motives, effectiveness, repercussions, and legal and moral standards. Past assassination plots including a US plan to kidnap or kill a German atomic scientist in World War II suggest that such attempts are products of desperation: A nation tries to kill another country’s nuclear scientists when it sees no military or diplomatic options for addressing a perceived threat of existential proportions. The possible advantages of targeting another country’s nuclear scientists are modest at best, possibly delaying (but not halting) a nuclear weapons program while providing some deniability to the attacking country. The disadvantages are many, including the possibility that assassinations will inspire retaliation, reduce the likelihood of a diplomatic solution, and increase the difficulties international regulators face in monitoring a covert nuclear program. In the abstract, moral and legal strictures also weigh against such assassination efforts. As a practical matter, however, if the existential imperative is present, it will likely trump legal and ethical considerations when a nation contemplates assassinating nuclear scientists.
by Jonathan S. Tobin
Just as we commonly state that democracy is not a suicide pact, neither is international law. States can and must act, sometimes preemptively, to defend their interests as well as the lives of their citizens. The most immoral thing either Barack Obama or Benjamin Netanyahu could do would be to abide by Greenwald’s notion of the legal niceties rather than to act to stop the Islamist state. It is far from clear covert activities such as assassinations of Iranian scientists or computer viruses will be enough to halt the threat. But the alternatives — either acquiescing to a nuclear Iran or contemplating massive military action — are far less palatable and will certainly result in far more bloodshed. Therefore, the targeted killings of those engaged in the development of this terrible threat is the least destructive option open to either the U.S. or Israel.
by Don Peck
The death of an Iranian nuclear scientist in a car bomb blast on Wednesday has prompted a lot of questions: Was Israel (or perhaps the U.S.) behind the blast? Can such assassinations meaningfully slow Iran's progress toward a bomb? Can they be countenanced, morally?
It's worth noting that this is hardly the first time that nuclear and other weapons scientists in the Middle East have blown up, eaten poison, let the wrong prostitute into their hotel room, or otherwise met an unfortunate end. In 2005, Terrence Henry wrote an Atlantic story chronicling the history of misfortune surrounding previous efforts by Iran and Egypt to acquire nuclear weapons capability and advanced missile capability, respectively -- both of which threatened Israel: