By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS* | intelNews.org |
The body of Iranian academic Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan was still warm when officials in Tehran began accusing Israel and the United States of having planned his assassination. Leveling such accusations without offering adequate proof is certainly unstatesmanlike; but even hasty conclusions can be logical, and even sworn enemies of the Iranian government would find it difficult to point at other possible culprits. Keeping in mind that, at this early stage, publicly available information about the assassination remains limited, are there conclusions that can be drawn with relative safety by intelligence observers? The answer is yes. Roshan, 32, was a supervisor at Iran’s top-secret Natanz fuel enrichment plant. His scientific specialty was in the technology of gas separation, the primary method used to enrich uranium in Iran’s nuclear energy program. His assassination, which took place in broad daylight amidst Tehran’s insufferable morning traffic, was a faithful reenactment of the attacks that killed two other Iranian nuclear scientists in November of 2010. A motorcycle, practically indistinguishable from the thousands of others that slide maniacally between cars in the busy streets of the Iranian capital, made its way to the car carrying Ahmadi-Roshan. As the driver kept his eyes on the road, the passenger skillfully affixed a magnetic explosive device to the outside surface of the targeted vehicle, next to where Ahmadi-Roshan was sitting. By the time the blast killed the scientist, as well as the car’s driver, and injured a third passenger, the motorcyclists were nowhere to be found. Two-and-a-half hours later, when the report of Ahmadi-Roshan’s assassination was making its way through the newsroom of Iran’s state-owned Fars news agency, the assassins were making their way to Dubai, Oman, Qatar, or various other destinations around the Middle East.
The first conclusion that can be drawn from the operation is that it was most likely conducted by the same agency or agencies that organized the twin attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists in November of 2010. The culprits thus carefully replicated a tested and proven technique in order to achieve a desired result. This is hardly surprising. Intelligence operations involving assassinations are rarely experimental; they are meticulously designed on the basis of lessons drawn from previous operations. To do otherwise would be risky, and intelligence bureaucracies tend to be risk-averse. If an operational method appears to bear the desired outcomes, it will most likely continue to be used until some major parameter in the overall equation chances drastically.
The second conclusion that can be drawn from the Ahmadi-Roshan assassination is that it was part of a discernible pattern, which points to what intelligence planners often call a “decapitation operation”. The idea behind it is to disrupt or impair the actions of an organized group or entity by neutralizing its leadership. Ethical and legal considerations aside, do such operations work? Scholarly evidence (.pdf) shows that they rarely do, and that sometimes they actually galvanize the membership, or prolong the natural decline, of targeted groups. In the particular case of the targeted killings of Iranian nuclear scientists very little —if any— evidence has been presented to show that they actually have had any meaningful impact whatsoever on the Iranian nuclear program. Speaking on state television after Ahmadi-Roshan’s assassination, Iran’s Vice President, Mohammad Reza Rahimi, insisted that the killings of scientists “will not halt [the] progress” of the Iranian nuclear program. He is probably right. If anything, the assassinations may actually weaken Iran’s democratic opposition and galvanize supporters of the regime, as a form of reaction to the nationally humiliating extrajudicial operations taking place on Iranian soil. According to reports from Western news agencies, the Iranian parliament “erupted with yells of ‘death to Israel’ and ‘death to America’ after Wednesday’s attack”.
As mentioned earlier, it is difficult to blame the Iranian regime for pointing the finger at Israel as a main culprit of the Ahmadi-Roshan assassination —although blaming the United States may be somewhat hasty in this case. Speaking on BBC Radio, former Mossad Director Danny Yatom noted that Iran has numerous enemies and regional rivals, all of whom should be included in the list of suspects. The latter is indeed long, and includes, aside from Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Iraq, Jordan, Pakistan, India, non-Hezbollah affiliated Lebanese, and Turkey, not to mention Western European countries, none of whom want to see a nuclear-armed Iran. It is equally true, however, that very few of those countries possess the intelligence-planning and operational skills needed to repeatedly carry out such challenging assassinations inside Iran. Operational skills aside, the assassinations demonstrate the degree to which their organizers have penetrated the Iranian nuclear energy program. As Amir Oren, senior correspondent for Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, correctly noted, the intelligence agency behind the assassination “knows who is active in Iran’s nuclear project, knows where and when to find them and how to eliminate them from the community of scientists”. Less than a handful of countries have access to such instrumental intelligence about the Iranian nuclear program. One of them is Iran. The other is Russia, an ally of Iran, which views the predominantly Shiite country as a vital counterbalancing factor in American-dominated Middle East. This leaves mostly the United States and Israel.
Interestingly, the United States appeared uncharacteristically eager to both deny its alleged role in Ahmadi-Roshan’s assassination and to denounce it, in what The New York Times called an “unusually strong condemnation” by both the State Department and the White House. A spokesman for the US National Security Council kept insisting yesterday that “the United States had absolutely nothing to do with this”. Should American officials be believed? This writer thinks so —not because of any natural claim to earnestness, but mostly because of Amir Mirzaei Hekmati, the Iranian-American former Marine who was arrested in Iran this past August. Hekmati, who was tried on charges of espionage, was sentenced to death this past week. Observers of Middle Eastern politics seem to agree that whoever killed Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan on Wednesday essentially sealed the American’s death warrant. If Hekmati —as the Iranians claim— is a Central Intelligence Agency asset, and if Ahmadi-Roshan’s assassination was indeed carried out by the United States, it would mean that the CIA deliberately turned its back on a captured asset. The last thing that an intelligence agency wants to do in this situation is send a message to potential recruits that, if they are captured, they will be readily discarded. Doing so tends to discourage the recruitment of assets, which is what agencies like the CIA depend on. If Hekmati is not a CIA asset, then it would still mean that, by going ahead with the Ahmadi-Roshan assassination, the United States chose to publicly sacrifice an American citizen, who could be publicly and mockingly executed by the Iranian regime, in response to the Ahmadi-Roshan assassination.
It is this author’s opinion that whoever killed Ahmadi-Roshan did not care about the fate of American citizen Amir Mirzaei Hekmati. However, if this is true, then it could mean something potentially catastrophic: that the intelligence agencies conducting covert operations against the Iranian nuclear program, such as the Mossad and the CIA, are not coordinating their activities. Could this be true? Could, in other words, the Mossad be acting completely autonomously from American and other Western intelligence agencies in the case of Iran? Writing on the Ahmadi-Roshan assassination, The Guardian’s Julian Borger commented that “whoever is killing Iran’s scientists is clearly willing to risk catastrophic consequences that could engulf the region”. This means that, either the administration of President Barack Obama is contemplating war, or it is losing strategic control of one of its few allies in the Middle East at a most critical juncture.
* Dr Joseph Fitsanakis coordinates the Security and Intelligence Studies program at King College, in the United States. He is Senior Editor of intelNews.org.