The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg raises a number of questions regarding the assassination of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, but also makes a number of assumptions which may not be warranted. First, his questions:
1) Why aren’t the Iranians attempting to kill Israeli defense officials? The answer, I believe, has more to do with Iranian technical limitations… Perhaps one [other] thing holding back Iran, though, is fear that attacks on Israeli officials…would prompt an immediate Israeli strike on Natanz, before the regime is able to move its centrifuges to its underground facility at Fordow.
Of course, if the Iranian nuclear program is military in nature and the elements of the Iranian security services which would have custody, command, and control over a nuclear weapon hope to use it against Israel, then why get in a tit-for-tat now rather than simply concentrate on completing a program which will achieve the goal of killing Israelis a million-times-over?
Likewise, there is always the possibility the Iranians overstate their intelligence capabilities, while the Israelis downplay theirs. Then again, perhaps Goldberg is wrong to assume the Israelis—rather than an Arab intelligence service—are behind this. After all, the Mossad is a shadow of its former self and has long ago ceased being the most effective intelligence service in the Middle East, as recent boondoggles illustrate. As much as American officials view Arab Shi’ites as Fifth Columnists, perhaps we need to recognize that the Fifth Column can go both ways.
2) Does Israel, or whoever is assassinating Iranian scientists, believe that these killings will actually slow-down Iranian nuclear development? In other words, do the people behind the assassinations believe that Iranian nuclear knowledge is so concentrated in the minds of a few scientists that a limited series of assassinations can cripple the program? This doesn’t seem likely, obviously.
Well, just earlier this week the head of Iran’s nuclear organization said the regime was having trouble keeping its nuclear scientists onboard. As my colleague Ali Alfoneh pointed out in his “Iran News Round Up” from this past Monday, Fereydoun Abbasi, Iran Atomic Energy Organization director, said a number of Iranian nuclear scientists are not willing to contribute to Iran’s nuclear program. According to Abbasi, the scientists are eager to “preserve their international contacts.” He likened them, however, to “deserters” during the Iran-Iraq.
3) Is the goal of the assassination program to convince Iranian nuclear scientists to seek other lines of work? This is also plausible, but not likely to work: I think the regime would take the Tony Soprano approach — you can’t resign from the Mafia — and tell frightened scientists to get back to work, or suffer the consequences, or have their families suffer the consequences.
Indeed, that is how I interpret Fereydoun Abbasi’s statement.
4) Why is Iran so incompetent at protecting its nuclear scientists? This is a perplexing issue.
There is a common problem among dictatorships that officials tell their superiors what they want them to hear. Perhaps the Iranian leadership truly believes the alleged spies they are arresting are guilty. All a foreign intelligence service has to do, however, is cull the authors of academic papers which Iran publishes online. As I wrote earlier, Alef News has released the titles of academic articles he had published (scroll down for English). What is clear, however, is that the Islamic Republic is deeply penetrated.
5) Why is the Mossad, assuming this is the Mossad, so deft at assassinating people in Tehran? It’s a very hard target, Iran, and the Mossad has on more than one occasion bungled assassinations in terrible ways (the attempted killing of the Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Jordan is only one case in point).
Again, Goldberg might consider that the list of those who oppose Iran’s nuclear program is far greater than just Israel and the United States. Indeed, fear of an Iranian nuclear breakout can make strange bedfellows. When it came to extraordinary rendition, the CIA clearly worked with some unsavory Arab governments. Why is it so unbelievable that there would be intelligence cooperation in this case? While I had earlier dismissed the tit-for-tat Iranian and Arab claims of sleeper cells in each others’ countries, perhaps there could be something to that.
6) Another question, or something closer to an observation: If I were a member of the Iranian regime (and I’m not), I would take this assassination program to mean that the West is entirely uninterested in any form of negotiation (not that I, the regime official, has ever been much interested in dialogue with the West) and that I should double-down and cross the nuclear threshold as fast as humanly possible. Once I do that, I’m North Korea, or Pakistan: An untouchable country.
Goldberg may have cause and effect confused here. Certainly, what the Iranians say in Persian about negotiation, and what they say in English are two different things.