Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

Print Print Email Email Share Share Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close

loading...

Iranian Scientists and U.S. Targeted Killings

by Micah Zenko
January 12, 2012

Bomb blast Tehran

Driving in rush hour traffic yesterday morning in Tehran, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, chemical engineer and department supervisor at the Natanz uranium enrichment plant, was killed. Reportedly, two men on a motorcycle attached a “sticky bomb” to Ahmadi Roshan’s Peugeot, killing the scientist and his bodyguard.

Although estimates vary, Ahmadi Roshan is the fifth Iranian official or scientist connected to the country’s nuclear or ballistic missile program who has been violently killed since 2007. Another scientist, Fereydoon Abbasi, narrowly escaped a similar “sticky bomb” assassination attempt in November 2010—he now leads Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization.

Iranian officials quickly pointed to Israel and the United States as likely perpetrators, and the Atomic Energy Organization released a statement affirming its commitment to the nuclear program: “The heinous actions by the criminal Israeli regime and America will not disrupt the path the Iranian people have chosen.”

Additionally, the Iranian permanent representative to the UN, Mohammad Khazaee, sent a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that claimed, but did not provide, “firm evidence that certain foreign quarters are behind such assassinations.” He added, “These quarters have spared no efforts in depriving the Islamic Republic of Iran from its inalienable right to peaceful nuclear energy and called for conducting covert operations ranging from assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists to launching a military strike on Iran as well as sabotaging Tehran’s nuclear program.”

The statements of denial from the Obama administration were atypically emphatic. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded: “I want to categorically deny any United States involvement in any kind of act of violence inside Iran.” Tommy Vietor, spokesperson of the National Security Council, said, “The United States had absolutely nothing to do with this.”

In previous attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists, U.S. officials have been evasive and far less forthcoming. In January 2010, after the assassination of physics professor Massoud Ali Mohammadi, a State Department spokesperson rejected the allegations of U.S. involvement as “absurd.” Later that year in November 2010, coordinated attacks targeted two nuclear scientists, killing one and severely injuring the other. State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley did not directly address the incident: “All I can say is we decry acts of terrorism wherever they occur and beyond that, we do not have any information on what happened.”

Recent statements of denial are unique because, normally, the U.S. government does not comment “as a matter of policy” on targeted killings. Since September 11, the U.S. government has conducted similar operations—outside of the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq—in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and possibly elsewhere. According to anonymous U.S. officials, drone strikes have killed more than 2,000 militants and approximately fifty noncombatants in Pakistan alone since 2004, although the number of civilian casualties is hotly contested. A few dozen suspected militants have also been killed outside of Pakistan.

Despite over ten years and 300 operations, there is no transparency and little congressional oversight over the U.S. policy of targeted killings. We know that the United States has somewhere between four and seven kill lists; kill lists are not coordinated; and U.S. citizens— possibly including children—can be targeted, thus denying their Fifth Amendment due process protections.

The reason these operations remain “secret” is that if the Bush or Obama administrations were to acknowledge any aspect of the program, it would create an architecture of justification and precedence for which the U.S. government can be held publicly accountable. Even democratic governments want limited oversight and total autonomy, especially when authorizing sensitive military operations.

Many senior U.S. officials who have left government since September 11 admit that the degree of transparency is inadequate. Jack Goldsmith, legal adviser for the Defense Department during the Bush Administration, questioned, “What are the procedures being used to ensure the right people are being targeted?” John B. Bellinger III, former legal advisor for the State Department, has similarly argued: “The [Obama] administration needs to work harder to explain and defend its use of drones as lawful and appropriate—to allies and critics—if it wants to avoid losing international support and potentially exposing administration officials to legal liability.” Former director of national intelligence Dennis Blair also called for public acknowledgment of the drone program: “You need a way to make it something that is part of your overt policy.”

According to administration officials, suspected members of Al Qaeda and affiliated groups can be legally targeted and killed because they fall under the September 2001, Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which passed the House 420 to 1 and the Senate 98 to 0. According to the AUMF, the “President has authority under the Constitution to take action to deter and prevent acts of international terrorism against the United States.”

Who is authorizing the assassination of scientists and officials in Iran? President Bush reportedly authorized covert—although nonlethal—action to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program. It is unknown if President Obama extended the Bush administration authorization (as he did for Pakistani drone strikes), but it is highly doubtful that he expanded them to permit lethal force against civilian scientists. Moreover, it is unlikely that the U.S. intelligence community has been permitted to share information with other countries or foreign agents in order for them to use lethal force.

The absence of transparency and oversight of ten years of targeted killings by the CIA and special operations forces makes U.S. denials regarding Iran less credible. President Obama famously said, “The CIA gets what it needs.” In this case, I hope that the CIA did not request the authority to kill Iranian civilian scientists and, if they did, that the president did not acquiesce.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Kir Komrik

    Hey, thank you for bringing this into the public square,

    “The statements of denial from the Obama administration were atypically emphatic. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded: “I want to categorically deny any United States involvement in any kind of act of violence inside Iran.” Tommy Vietor, spokesperson of the National Security Council, said, “The United States had absolutely nothing to do with this.”

    I first thought the accusation against Iran regarding the conspiracy to assassinate a Saudi official in the States was more Langley games. But this behavior by USG could indicate that it was in fact genuine; since they would need to distance themselves now from this kind of obviously “rogue” behavior if they want to hold Iran accountable for the same thing. Whatever the case, an interesting outlier.

    “State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley did not directly address the incident: “All I can say is we decry acts of terrorism wherever they occur and beyond that, we do not have any information on what happened.”

    For an enterprising journalist this could make a career sometime in the not too distant future if it is found that USG was involved. USG would be calling itself a terrorist. Priceless. Of course, if they do the usually disingenuous thing of farming it out to “allies” (which makes absolutely no ethical difference) then our allies get appellations of gross defamation, which won’t go over well either. I don’t mean to be too critical, but USG is not working favor to its own credibility and political capital with the rest of the world by doing this kind of stuff; if in fact they are involved. I would recommend that this kind of activity be reconsidered, at least on those grounds.

    “We know that the United States has somewhere between four and seven kill lists; kill lists are not coordinated; and U.S. citizens— possibly including children—can be targeted, thus denying their Fifth Amendment due process protections.”

    I would not want to point fingers or blame here, because the problem at hand is deserving of a nobler, and generally more applicable, response. This is just one of the many things on a long list of grievances against USG that proves my point about the lack of durability of neo-liberal western “democracy”, as formulated today. A broader, very public and transparent discussion of governance generally, and how we can calm the global anarchy going on right now, is timely, imo.

    - kk

  • Posted by khalil jaser

    Targeted assassinations have always been the works of the Mossad or the CIA..On the other hand, if other nations start copying these henious crimes, they will be called by Israel and the US as “terrorist regimes”.

  • Posted by Javed Mir

    ‘The CIA gets what it needs’ a public statement by a Noble Prize winner is hardly humanistic.

    With the appearance of Barack Obama on the international political horizon it was expected that situation in the Middle East will change – the change he promised – and peace will prevail. After four years we do not see any visible improvement.

    This target assassination with covert or overt approval by the States will not develop human history rather will generate more hatred and violence among the nations.

  • Posted by UNF

    Obama threatened teenage boys with predator drones for looking at his daughters ~ at which the acolytes laughed dutifully, whereas more sane observers suspected these were no mere idle words, but had an extremely nasty undertone which presaged a horrible imminent reality.

    Since then he has used his personal FPS video-game to murder one 16-year-old US citizen that we know about. He and his father [Al-Alwaki], ‘droned’ a fortnight before, were both civilians.

    As that is how US citizens are officially treated by Obama for the alleged ‘crime’ of free speech, it is ludicrous to suggest that he would refuse to authorise the murder of Iranian nuclear scientists due to any moral or legal scruple.

    The author should not strain himself to invent implausible cover for joint US/Israeli crimes.

    Furthermore, by what stretch of the imagination does he assert that Iranian scientists are ‘enemy combatants’?

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required

Pingbacks