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Posted at 12:24 PM ET, 11/29/2010

Murder in Tehran: Can covert action stop Iran's nuclear program?

By Jackson Diehl

The story of the Stuxnet worm, which may have disabled some of the centrifuges enriching uranium for Iran's nuclear program, offered a tantalizing hope: that covert action could somehow stop the regime's drive for a bomb peacefully -- and cleverly.

Today's news from Tehran, however, brings a reminder that the covert action -- which both the United States and Israel are known to be conducting -- may have an ugly side. Two Iranian nuclear scientists were attacked with bombs as they commuted to work with their wives; one was killed and the other seriously injured.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad swiftly accused the United States and Israel of responsibility at a press conference; that was to be expected. In fact it's not implausible the bombings could have been a domestic operation; the opposition Green movement suggested the regime was responsible. The People's Mojahedin movement has been responsible for both political assassinations and the revelation of Iran's nuclear secrets, so it cannot be ruled out.

The United States, however, has previously engaged with at least one Iranian nuclear scientist, though not lethally. A young scientist named Shahram Amiri was reported in March to have defected to the United States -- Iran said he was abducted -- before voluntarily returning to his family in Tehran in July.

Israel, meanwhile, is known not to share the U.S. aversion to foreign assassinations. Earlier this year a team of its operatives were exposed after they murdered a top Hamas militant in a Dubai hotel. Monday's operation -- in which men on motorcycles attached explosives to the cars of the scientists and sped away before they exploded -- was clearly a sophisticated operation.

As described by Iran, the two scientists also sounded like probable targets. The man killed, Majid Shahriari, was said to be "in charge of one of the great projects" at Iran's Atomic Energy Agency by the agency's chief. The wounded man, Abbasi Davani, was targeted by UN Security Council sanctions because of his work for the defense ministry and membership in the Revolutionary Guard, which is believed to control the nuclear weapons program.

So these were probably dangerous men -- but they were also civilians. Would Iran's adversaries be justified in targeting them for assassination? The answer has to rely, in part, on what such killings accomplish. If they bring Iran's program to a halt -- ending a slow-burning crisis that could eventually lead to war -- then perhaps the end would justify the means.

So far, however, the results of covert action against Iran appear to be relatively modest. Uranium enrichment at the Natanz plant has plateaued in recent months -- and Ahmadinejad appeared to admit on Monday for the first time that Stuxnet may have caused problems. "They were able to disable on a limited basis some of our centrifuges by software installed in electronic equipment," Agence France Press quoted him as saying. He added: "Our specialists stopped that and they will not be able to do it again."

In fact, UN inspectors have reported that while Natanz experienced an unexplained one-day shutdown this month, uranium enrichment is proceeding at about the same pace as earlier this year. Meanwhile, Iran's Russian-built nuclear plant in Busheir is reported to be loading fuel and preparing to begin operation in January.

Covert action, in short, is not likely to be the silver bullet that stops Iran's nuclear program. That's true of 21st-century devices like Stuxnet -- and it will likely apply to the old-fashioned and ruthless attacks on Iranian scientists.

By Jackson Diehl  | November 29, 2010; 12:24 PM ET
Categories:  Diehl  | Tags:  Jackson Diehl  
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The use of covert actions is to discover the enemies weaknesses. The US and Israel have
done that with Iran. What they do next will either produce war or cooperation with Iran.
We will have to wait for the meetings to see what happens next.

Posted by: truthinmo | November 29, 2010 2:16 PM | Report abuse

Can a "civilian" working on a weapon of mass destruction still be considered a civilian? Is a non-military leader of a country which attacks another with such a weapon also a "civilian"? If covert action will stop such development, does it not negate the mostly philosophical argument of who is or is not a "civilian"?

Posted by: baltic | November 29, 2010 2:59 PM | Report abuse

So, if the murder of civilian scientists is a legitimate act, what if Iran blows up the (probably) American computer scientists who attacked it with the virus? Would we jump back in horror and denounce the Iranian regime as barbarous? Of course!

When considering such actions with the calm equanimity of a newspaper columnist enjoying a cup of coffee at his desk, perhaps the real question to always ask would be: "Is turn-about fair play?" And if not, why not? Oh, that's right! They're Muslims with funny sounding names, so of course they can be killed with impunity. How silly of me...

Posted by: cookj | November 29, 2010 3:48 PM | Report abuse

Covert action aka state sponsored terrorism. So would al-Qaeda targeting software designers in California who design drone software then be justified if they felt that killing of software designers would stop the program?

Posted by: crete | November 29, 2010 4:11 PM | Report abuse

The likely reason North Korea and Iran pursue nuclear capability is because G. W. Bush referred to them as belonging to the "Axis of Evil" (along with Iraq) in his 2003 SOTU speech.

That put these countries on the defensive.

Bush's speechwriter got in his little political jab and Bush got his applause.

Now North Korea has nuclear weapons and Iran is accused of pursuing them.

Was a political jab worth it?

When did putting a large country on the defensive result in it caving in to us.

Posted by: JackDixon | November 29, 2010 4:52 PM | Report abuse

More neocon zionist warmongering from AIPAC's Washington Post. Don't they ever take a rest??

Posted by: kurthunt | November 29, 2010 5:13 PM | Report abuse

If Israel and the US could get a hit squad into Iran, I'm sure they would have targeted Ahmadinejad. Getting software code into a centrifuge is probably a lot easier than getting assasins into a country that is a tightly controlled police state. Maybe the Iranian opposition has not been completely quelled in the wake of the violence after Ahmadinejad's phony election.

Posted by: rob15 | November 29, 2010 5:43 PM | Report abuse

The US is losing ground in the Middle East, it seems to be running out of ideas on how to deal with Iran.
Iran seems to be more stable in a confrontation. Maybe it's time to change tactics. They look for confrontation, and u grant them stability... in the end, the US Gov will be undermined...

Posted by: Kinesics | November 29, 2010 5:52 PM | Report abuse

Chickenhawk neocon hypocrites never sleep. They simply push harder for a war with a country that has never attacked us.

I haven't read the WaPo in a long time. I remember why.

Posted by: wj03412000 | November 29, 2010 5:53 PM | Report abuse

One talking point has made it out simultaneously in hundreds of papers: maybe it was an internal assassination by The People's Mojahedin movement??

That was fast.

Posted by: thebobbob | November 29, 2010 6:06 PM | Report abuse

I supposed this is what used to be called Realpolitik. Suppose anyone who has a dislike of someone else, decide to solve disagreement by murder. The world will be a better place if we can simply kill all those whose agenda we dislike.
Brave New World

Posted by: Puzzled9 | November 29, 2010 6:39 PM | Report abuse


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Posted by: zhengee22 | November 29, 2010 7:57 PM | Report abuse

"The answer has to rely, in part, on what such killings accomplish. If they bring Iran's program to a halt -- ending a slow-burning crisis that could eventually lead to war -- then perhaps the end would justify the means."

Perhaps WaPo columnists who deceive the public into supporting a war of choice should be held to the same standard.

Posted by: Thoughtful-Ted | November 29, 2010 9:44 PM | Report abuse

These murders have the sophistication of Hitler's Büchersturm, the burning of books to prevent people from knowing. How much lower can the US and Israel who are, without a doubt, the perpetrators of these attacks - Bush even mentioned in public that the US government wants to kill Iranian scientists to prevent their nuclear program - fall? Nations in decline, who know they can't prevent their own downfall any longer, acting to destroy others to hide their fall. Disgusting.

Posted by: 1964 | November 29, 2010 10:33 PM | Report abuse

"Would Iran's adversaries be justified in targeting them for assassination? The answer has to rely, in part, on what such killings accomplish."

Is this a geopolitical "Jeopardy" game show where we must guess the question having been given an answer? Can we stop being sly about what the question is? Repeated references to "Iran's nuclear program" or simply "Iran's program" in place of "Iran's nuclear WEAPONS program" is a deceptive way of avoiding the issue that it has not been established that Iran even has a nuclear weapons program rather than only a nuclear energy program as they claim. The deliberate use of insinuation to the contrary invites jumping to conclusions about what we are talking about as in, for example, the post of baltic above which asks: "Can a 'civilian' working on a weapon of mass destruction still be considered a civilian?"

If we want to be honest about what the question really is in the minds of those in charge of our country's foreign policy it would be: "Are any means, including assassinations or even war, justified in preventing Iran from having even a comprehensive nuclear energy program?" This is because such a program carries with it a break-out weapons capability that unsettles our ally Israel. So afraid are the Israelis of not being the sole regional nuclear weapons power that it is expected that an Iranian break-out capable nuclear energy program would cause an out-migration of Israeli Jews, accelerating the looming demographic crisis of Jews becoming a minority, and Arabs the majority, in Israel. So the question, stated with even fuller honesty, becomes: Are any means justified in preventing that?

Let's try to answer the real question, not the boogeyman substitute.

Posted by: Adam_Smith | November 29, 2010 10:42 PM | Report abuse

What was the point in time when the Post started to post these absurd right-wing slurs in its editorial section?

Posted by: jgrace5 | November 29, 2010 11:12 PM | Report abuse

You assured us Iraq was building weapons of mass destruction too, you warmongering tool.

Posted by: politbureau | November 29, 2010 11:17 PM | Report abuse

so now Americans and WAPO are advocating murder and terrorism to thwart Irans nuclear program?

Covert action? is this a new phrase for MURDER?

So maybe Iran is right after all, the Israelis are a terrorist state, they go around murdering their opposition.

However, I dont think Iran would let this sort of thing go unavenged, we could see tit for tat retaliations, nuclear officials in Israel should be prepared for similar attacks.

Once again, Israel has struck first in an illegal and murderous fashion, I bet they are using their Kurdish allies, so this may not fare well for Kurds as well.

Unbelivable acts by nations who call themselves democratic and civilized.

Let the whole world see who the real criminals are now.

Posted by: obeeone | November 30, 2010 1:36 AM | Report abuse

Amazing!!! Just amazing how this journalist is trying to justify the murder of 2 civilian scientists!!!
Unfortunately for the perpetrators of these attacks, this will only embolden the conservative elements in Iran to not only go full force towards a nuclear capability, but also knowing Iranians, these acts will not go without a response.

Posted by: assman1 | November 30, 2010 2:07 AM | Report abuse

Sounds like Mossad to me. As for the comparison with Iraqi WMD below, maybe this columnist was on that bandwagon, I can't remember, but I don't hear many outside Iran suggesting they do not harbor nuclear weapons ambitions.

Posted by: crokey | November 30, 2010 2:23 AM | Report abuse

what a disgraceful piece of writing, so wapo allows pseudo criminals and wanna be murderers write for them.

Boy this was a wishful article cum mossad wet dream.

How low can the US media go, we have not seen the bottom yet. Advocating murder....boy oh boy, really creepy cretins.

Posted by: obeeone | November 30, 2010 2:37 AM | Report abuse

Shame on those who have committed these crimes. The collaborators of these crimes are for sure commiting similar crimes in other counties to keep their interests in what ever means its possible and it seems they will go to any extend.Nuclear weapons in these countries are more dangerous than any other countries.History has shown who are the true axis of evil. No one has used nuclear weapons than the USA. Where ever there is war you can see USA is involved in it. The world has become more unsafe then 20 years back only because of the activities of USA and its friends in these crimes. Now USA is getting ready for another war in North Korea by conducting military exercises. USA will not allow a unification of North and South so that they can keep the military presence in Korean peninsula. I wonder why noble peace price is given to a person who doesn't even talk to north Korea. Peace comes by hearing the other side of the story and then making a just judgement and not by war's.

Posted by: virtualihere | November 30, 2010 2:40 AM | Report abuse

"Would Iran's adversaries be justified in targeting them for assassination? The answer has to rely, in part, on what such killings accomplish."

So car bombings and the murder of civilians are fine for Mr Diehl just so long as the particular terrorist crimes in question serve to advance the US empire's foreign policy agenda effectively.

There is no difference in bloodthirstiness or murderousness between supporters of US and Israeli state terrorism like Mr Diehl and the stereotypical supporters of al Qaeda.

The only difference is that Diehl and his ilk are more hypocritical.

Posted by: RichardCheeseman | December 1, 2010 4:47 AM | Report abuse

Seriously, You think that Iran has never attacked the U.S.? Iran has been behind numerous terrorist and more covert attacks in both the U.S. and Israel since the Shah was deposed in 1979. They were the first country to declare Jihad against the U.S. and have operated against us and Israel through both Hezbollah and Hamas.

But remember also, the U.S. has not been a silent player in this drama, having attacked Iranian aircraft, both military and civilian (USS Vincennes) violated airspace with drones, troop movements at borders, and seaways at the straits. The U.S. has also missed more than a couple of opportunities to put an end to much of this and reconcile with Iran. So while atm it may be that the U.S. is the aggressor in this situation, Iran is not without it's own provocation. Ultimately, history is written by the victor but the relations between Iran and the U.S. is the result of both countries posturing on the world stage. IMO, the U.S. should be the bigger country and find ways to improve these relations. Iran will not always be a religous autocracy that it is today, and it is not in the U.S. long term interest to be viewed as an enemy of this country. They're religous customs belie the intelligence and capabilities of the Iranian people. They could become one of our best allies or one of our worst enemies, but we (our govt.) dismisses them at it's own peril.

Posted by: tpetty1 | December 1, 2010 1:31 PM | Report abuse

Somebody's assassinating nuclear scientists? So what was the ugly side you mentioned?

Posted by: mgmax | December 2, 2010 10:04 PM | Report abuse

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