Adversaries of Iran Said to Be Stepping Up Covert Actions
WASHINGTON — As arguments flare in Israel and the United States about a possible military strike to set back Iran’s nuclear program, an accelerating covert campaign of assassinations, bombings, cyberattacks and defections appears intended to make that debate irrelevant, according to current and former American officials and specialists on Iran.
The campaign, which experts believe is being carried out mainly by Israel, apparently claimed its latest victim on Wednesday when a bomb killed a 32-year-old nuclear scientist in Tehran’s morning rush hour.
The scientist, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, was a department supervisor at the Natanz uranium enrichment plant, a participant in what Western leaders believe is Iran’s halting but determined progress toward a nuclear weapon. He was at least the fifth scientist with nuclear connections to be killed since 2007; a sixth scientist, Fereydoon Abbasi, survived a 2010 attack and was put in charge of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization.
Iranian officials immediately blamed both Israel and the United States for the latest death, which came less than two months after a suspicious explosion at an Iranian missile base that killed a top general and 16 other people. While American officials deny a role in lethal activities, the United States is believed to engage in other covert efforts against the Iranian nuclear program.
The assassination drew an unusually strong condemnation from the White House and the State Department, which disavowed any American complicity. The statements by the United States appeared to reflect serious concern about the growing number of lethal attacks, which some experts believe could backfire by undercutting future negotiations and prompting Iran to redouble what the West suspects is a quest for a nuclear capacity.
“The United States had absolutely nothing to do with this,” said Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared to expand the denial beyond Wednesday’s killing, “categorically” denying “any United States involvement in any kind of act of violence inside Iran.”
“We believe that there has to be an understanding between Iran, its neighbors and the international community that finds a way forward for it to end its provocative behavior, end its search for nuclear weapons and rejoin the international community,” Mrs. Clinton said.
The Israeli military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, writing on Facebook about the attack, said, “I don’t know who took revenge on the Iranian scientist, but I am definitely not shedding a tear,” Israeli news media reported.
Like the drone strikes that the Obama administration has embraced as a core tactic against Al Qaeda, the multifaceted covert campaign against Iran has appeared to offer an alternative to war. But at most it has slowed, not halted, Iran’s enrichment of uranium, a potential fuel for a nuclear weapon. And some skeptics believe that it may harden Iran’s resolve or set a dangerous precedent for a strategy that could be used against the United States and its allies.
Neither Israeli nor American officials will discuss the covert campaign in any detail, leaving some uncertainty about the perpetrators and their purpose. For instance, Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said he believed that at least some of the murdered scientists might have been killed by the Iranian government. Some of them had shown sympathy for the Iranian opposition, he said, and not all appeared to have been high-ranking experts.
“I think there is reason to doubt the idea that all the hits have been carried out by Israel,” Mr. Sadjadpour said. “It’s very puzzling that Iranian nuclear scientists, whose movements are likely carefully monitored by the state, can be executed in broad daylight, sometimes in rush-hour traffic, and their culprits never found.”
A more common view, however, is expressed by Patrick Clawson, director of the Iran Security Initiative at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “I often get asked when Israel might attack Iran,” Mr. Clawson said. “I say, ‘Two years ago.’ ”
Mr. Clawson said the covert campaign was far preferable to overt airstrikes by Israel or the United States on suspected Iranian nuclear sites. “Sabotage and assassination is the way to go, if you can do it,” he said. “It doesn’t provoke a nationalist reaction in Iran, which could strengthen the regime. And it allows Iran to climb down if it decides the cost of pursuing a nuclear weapon is too high.”
A former senior Israeli security official, who would speak of the covert campaign only in general terms and on the condition of anonymity, said the uncertainty about who was responsible was useful. “It’s not enough to guess,” he said. “You can’t prove it, so you can’t retaliate. When it’s very, very clear who’s behind an attack, the world behaves differently.”
The former Israeli official noted that Iran carried out many assassinations of enemies, mostly Iranian opposition figures, during the 1980s and 1990s, and had been recently accused of plotting to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States in Washington.
“In Arabic, there’s a proverb: If you are shooting, don’t complain about being shot,” he said. But he portrayed the killings and bombings as part of a larger Israeli strategy to prevent all-out war.
“I think the cocktail of diplomacy, of sanctions, of covert activity might bring us something,” the former official said. “I think it’s the right policy while we still have time.”
Israel has used assassination as a tool of statecraft since its creation in 1948, historians say, killing dozens of Palestinian and other militants and a small number of foreign scientists, military officials or people accused of being Holocaust collaborators.
But there is no exact precedent for what appears to be the current campaign against Iran, involving Israel and the United States and a broad array of methods.
The assassinations have been carried out primarily by motorcyclists who attach magnetic bombs to the victim’s car, often in heavy traffic, before speeding away.
Iran’s Mehr news agency said Wednesday’s explosion took place on Gol Nabi Street, on Mr. Roshan’s route to work, at 8:20 a.m. The news agency said the scientist, who also taught at a technical university, was deputy director of commercial affairs at the Natanz site, evidently in charge of buying equipment and materials. Two other people were wounded, and one later died in a hospital, Iranian officials said.
Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazaee, sent a letter of protest to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, blaming “certain foreign quarters” for what he called “terrorist acts” aimed at disrupting Iran’s “peaceful nuclear program, under the false assumption that diplomacy alone would not be enough for that purpose.”
The ambassador’s letter complained of sabotage, a possible reference to the Stuxnet computer worm, believed to be a joint American-Israeli project, that reportedly led to the destruction in 2010 of about a fifth of the centrifuges Iran uses to enrich uranium. It also said the covert campaign included “a military strike on Iran,” evidently a reference to a mysterious explosion that destroyed much of an Iranian missile base on Nov. 12.
That explosion, which Iran experts say they believe was probably an Israeli effort, killed Gen. Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam, who was in charge of Iran’s missile program. Satellite photographs show multiple buildings at the site leveled or heavily damaged.
The C.I.A., according to current and former officials, has repeatedly tried to derail Iran’s uranium enrichment program by covert means, including introducing sabotaged parts into Iran’s supply chain.
In addition, the agency is believed to have encouraged some Iranian nuclear scientists to defect, an effort that came to light in 2010 when a scientist, Shahram Amiri, who had come to the United States, claimed to have been kidnapped by the C.I.A. and returned to Iran. (Press reports say he has since been arrested and tried for treason.) A former deputy defense minister, Ali-Reza Asgari, disappeared while visiting Turkey in 2006 and is widely believed to have defected, possibly to the United States.
William C. Banks, an expert on national security law at Syracuse University, said he believed that for the United States even to provide specific intelligence to Israel to help kill an Iranian scientist would violate a longstanding executive order banning assassinations. The legal rationale for drone strikes against terrorist suspects — that the United States is at war with Al Qaeda and its allies — would not apply, he said.
“Under international law, aiding and abetting would be the same as pulling the trigger,” Mr. Banks said. He added, “We would be in a precarious position morally, and the entire world is watching, especially China and Russia.”
Gary Sick, a specialist on Iran at Columbia, said he believed that the covert campaign, combined with sanctions, would not persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear work.
“It’s important to turn around and ask how the U.S. would feel if our revenue was being cut off, our scientists were being killed and we were under cyberattack,” Mr. Sick said. “Would we give in, or would we double down? I think we’d fight back, and Iran will, too.”