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Saturday, January 14, 2012

Strategic Error

A few year's back, a survey revealed that cabbies held the most potentially fatal job.  It should tell you something, then, that a number of Iranian nuclear scientists have recently applied for jobs driving cabs.

Well, maybe not, but I wouldn't be surprised.

On Wednesday, an Iranian scientist was killed when a bomb was attached magnetically to his car during rush hour.  The killers, who were riding a motorcycle, got away.  This was just the latest such assassination of people involved in Iran's nuclear program.  Most international observers suspect that the United States and Israel have played a role in the attacks, and the slick, high-tech nature of the assaults certainly sounds like the kind of thing the CIA or, more likely, the Mossad would pull off.  The Mossad don't play.

While the thought of a nuclear-armed Iran is slightly less appealing to an Israeli (or to most Americans) than the thought of eating a Madagascar cockroach, I find myself troubled by this particular strategy--if, indeed, Israel is behind it (more on that later).  To disrupt Iran's progress toward nuclear weapons, certain tactics are legal and acceptable--economic sanctions, for example.  Other strategies of questionable legality still fall under the heading of morally acceptable.  Whoever launched the Stuxnet computer virus against Iranian systems (again, most people suspect Israel and/or the United States), violated international law; however, by avoiding violence and "collateral damage," this action meets certain ethical standards.  Once you start assasinating people, however--especially when these people are ostensibly involved in peaceful activities (Iran claims to want nuclear power only for civilian purposes)--you have crossed a line.

I understand that Israel considers a nuclear-armed Iran to be an existential threat, and that the Israeli government will take any steps they can to prevent such an eventuality.  I could even see a case being made for assassinations--even though these obviously violate norms of international law.  But there are "more or less" acceptable targets for such actions.  Military targets, of course: Soldiers and officers have chosen to pursue a career that, by definition, entails a risk of death.  Even politicians may be considered fair game, especially when they engage in apocalyptic rhetoric about wiping other countries off the map, for example; I certainly wouldn't shed any tears if Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had an "unfortunate accident."  Scientists, however, are not legitimate targets.  They are civilians.

Beyond being unethical, targeting scientists would seem to be counterproductive.  After all, if Iran feels that its nuclear scientists are being targeted by foreign agents, the government will simply take steps to make sure that these people are under protective custody at all times.  Whereas political figures must make public appearances--and therefore put themselves at risk--scientists are under no such obligations.  Indeed, the fact that scientists continue to die has caused some to speculate that the Iranian government itself is behind the recent assassinations, killing relatively minor figures in the nuclear industry in order to cast blame on its foreign enemies.  That sounds a little far-fetched--Israel has certainly never been shy about violently eradicating perceived threats--but who knows?

Israel has a rough enough time in the court of international opinion.  In many respects, this is a result of fanatical anti-Zionism or, indeed, anti-Semitism.  But Israel does itself no favors by targeting civilians in other countries for assassination.  If the Israelis are doing this, they need to stop.

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