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On Iran, how far is too far?

Editorial

The car-bomb death of a nuclear scientist raises important questions about targeted assassinations.

January 12, 2012
  • This undated photo released by Iranian Students News Agency claims to show Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, a supervisor at the uranium enrichment plant in Natanz. He was killed in a bomb blast in Tehran, Iran, Jan. 11. The slaying suggests a widening covert effort to set back Iran's atomic program.
This undated photo released by Iranian Students News Agency claims to show… (ISNA/AP Photo )

Iran's development of nuclear weapons poses a grave threat to world stability and possibly an existential threat to this country's Middle Eastern ally, Israel. But how far can one go in efforts to thwart Tehran's nuclear ambition before going too far? Economic sanctions are one thing, but what about launching viruses to ravage Iranian computers? And how about the targeted assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists?

That appears to be what happened Wednesday, when Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, a supervisor at the uranium enrichment plant in Natanz, was killed — reportedly by a car bomb that had been magnetically attached to his vehicle by a passing motorcyclist. That's the kind of clean, covert assassination method favored by Western intelligence agencies.

Roshan wasn't the first Iranian scientist to be targeted. At least two others have been killed (also by vehicle bombs) and a third injured within the last two years. Tehran's Security Council chief said Roshan's killing was "an act of the Zionists," and while we're not in the habit of believing such pronouncements, one would have to willfully ignore accounts of past covert Israeli activities not to at least suspect Israeli involvement — especially because the Israeli government has made little effort to deny it. The closest thing to an official statement from Jerusalem on the bombing was a Facebook post by Israeli military spokesman Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai: "I don't know who took revenge on the Iranian scientist, but I am definitely not shedding a tear."

The denial was more strenuous in Washington. "I want to categorically deny any United States involvement in any kind of act of violence inside Iran," said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

She went on to deliver a lecture about the need for Iran to shut down its nuclear program, which we agree with. But we also think the bombing merited something more — a strong statement that the United States decries political assassinations. The U.S. is already on shaky legal and ethical grounds with its own program of targeted drone assassinations of suspected terrorists. But at least we're at war with Al Qaeda. State-sponsored extrajudicial killing is a serious violation of international law, and car-bomb assassination is a tactic little different from the methods used by terrorists. It would be nice to hear Clinton, or President Obama, emphasize such principles.

Economic sanctions don't appear to be doing much to slow Iran's nuclear progress, and that is worrisome. But slaughtering scientists on the streets of Tehran isn't the answer. It is as inefficient as it is morally bankrupt, because killing a handful of experts won't erase the country's institutional nuclear knowledge. If Israel is involved, it's a shameful and foolish policy.

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