In an op-ed for the New Scientist, Debora MacKenzie writes: Attempts to derail a country’s nuclear programme by killing its scientists “are products of desperation”, says [William] Tobey [of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University] – citing a US effort to kill legendary physicist Werner Heisenberg during the second world war, abandoned at the last minute only when the would-be assassin decided Heisenberg was not involved in a Nazi nuclear effort after all.
“Nuclear scientists are not terrorists,” says Tobey in the BAS this week. Killing them at best delays bomb development, by removing key people and perhaps deterring young scientists from careers in nuclear science. But it will not stop bomb development.
These slim advantages are far outweighed, Tobey says, by the downsides: possible retaliation, reduced chances for diplomacy, tighter security around nuclear installations and a pretext for Iran to hamper IAEA monitoring.
Iran has already accused the IAEA of abetting the assassinations by publicising confidential Iranian lists of key nuclear scientists and engineers.
The IAEA needs such information, as talks with nuclear personnel are considered essential for verifying safeguards against diverting uranium to bombs, says Tobey. Making this process harder only makes sense if the people behind the assassinations think it is too late for safeguards and that slowing bomb R&D by killing scientists is therefore more expedient.
The Israeli columnist Ron Ben-Yishai writes: The most curious question in the face of these incidents is why Iran, which does not shy away from threatening the world with closure of the Hormuz Straits, has failed to retaliate for the painful blows to its nuclear and missile program? After all, the Revolutionary Guards have a special arm, Quds, whose aim (among others) is to carry out terror attacks and secret assassinations against enemies of the regime overseas.
Moreover, if the Iranians do not wish to directly target Western or Israeli interests, they can prompt their agents, that is, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and other groups, to do the job. In the past, Iran did not shy away from carrying out terror attacks in Europe (in Paris and Berlin) and in South America (in Buenos Aires,) so why is it showing restraint now?
The reason is apparently Iran’s fear of Western retaliation. Any terror attack against Israel or another Western target – whether it is carried out directly by the Quds force or by Hezbollah – may prompt a Western response. Under such circumstances, Israel or a Western coalition (or both) will have an excellent pretext to strike and destroy Iran’s nuclear and missile sites.
This sounds like a confirmation that Israel is indeed wanting to provoke Iran in order to start a war.
But here’s the paradox: if Iran is intent on developing nuclear weapons then it has ever incentive to continue keeping its powder dry. Why should it jeopardize its nuclear program by succumbing to provocation?
On the other hand if Israel’s covert war does indeed succeed in triggering a full-scale war, this may be an indication that Iran never intended to go further than develop a nuclear break-out capacity.
At the same time, the idea that Iran can only strike back through some form of violence, ignores the economic and psychological levers that it can pull much more easily.
The question may not be how much provocation Iran can withstand but rather how high can the price for oil rise before the global economy buckles?