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Who’s Killing Iran’s Nuclear Officials?

January 12, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
After Wednesday's deadly attack on a nuclear scientist in Tehran, Jeffrey Brown discusses the unclear covert sabotage on Iran's nuclear program with Ronen Bergman from the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth and David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And for more on this, we go to Ronen Bergman in Tel Aviv. He’s a reporter for the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. And he’s also working on an article on this subject for The New York Times magazine. And David Albright, a physicist and former U.N. weapons inspector, he’s now president of the Institute for Science and International Security.

Ronen Bergman, I will start with you.

Certainly, many people are looking to Israel and its Mossad intelligence agency watch. What is known and not known about who is behind this?

RONEN BERGMAN, Yedioth Ahronoth: Jeffrey, I don’t know. And even if I knew, I would tell you that I don’t know.

(LAUGHTER)

RONEN BERGMAN: We don’t want to risk me in jeopardizing national secrets of Israel and being thrown into jail.

Benjamin Netanyahu many times -- I think stupidly -- but many times compared President Ahmadinejad with Hitler. And when your adversary is at the size of Adolf Hitler, then all means are justified to stop him.Ronen Bergman, Yedioth Ahronoth

I would say this. Mossad has a long tradition. The Israel intelligence foreign agency has a long tradition of taking out, eliminating, targeting nuclear scientists working for Israeli enemies. Benjamin Netanyahu many times — I think stupidly — but many times compared President Ahmadinejad with Hitler.

And when your adversary is at the size of Adolf Hitler, then all means are justified to stop him. And we have been witnessing in the last five years a series of mysterious mishaps, sabotaging, bombing and, above all, killing of Iranian scientists who were prominent figures in the Iranian nuclear project and the Iranian attempt to build surface-to-surface long-range ballistic missiles.

These assassinations, I would say, are aimed at a three-fold target, first to take out prominent figures from the Iranian nuclear project, the second, to make the Iranians, to force the Iranians to put a lot of effort into trying to prevent the next assassination, screening people, trying to find who are the Mossad moles, guarding the live scientists.

And when someone has to invest so much effort into trying to protect, he has a lot less energy to invest in the advancement of the project. And, third, maybe not-less-important target is to spread fear, grave intimidation among the surviving scientists that they may end up like their friends.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

RONEN BERGMAN: They have a prestigious job, good salaries, but, at the end of the day, they might recalculate their participation and maybe consider to go back to the jobs that they had before in schools and universities in Tehran.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me ask David Albright.

What is known about this scientist who was killed, this particular man?

DAVID ALBRIGHT, Institute for Science & International Security: Well, Dr. Roshan is a chemical engineer. He’s involved in the Natanz fuel enrichment plant involving gas centrifuges. And that is really at the core of the concern about Iran getting nuclear weapons.

The reporting says he’s involved in the procurement, which means he’s…

JEFFREY BROWN: I saw that. Now, what would that mean? And why would that make him a target?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Well, Iran depends very heavily on buying overseas the equipment it needs to run its gas centrifuges, a lot of high-tech equipment. It doesn’t make it. It’s hardly self-sufficient in many of the items that it needs.

And he would possibly been involved in organizing the secret smuggling operation that Iran has been trying to operate worldwide and is banned under U.N. Security Council sanctions. And countries are spending a great deal of effort to try to stop Iranian smuggling operations.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the — what do we know about the overall group, the people who — the Iranian scientists, in terms of size, so that you can assess what kind of impact these kinds of killings might have on the overall group?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Well, there’s thousands of people involved in the program, hundreds of professional scientists at his level.

And so it’s — killing one of them is not going to have a big impact on the program. I mean, Ronen mentioned these other kind of indirect effects that are very real and can disrupt the program and cause hardships in it, perhaps some delays. But he can be replaced.

There’s a lot of Iranians who can step up to the plate in order to help improve or fulfill Iranian needs for its equipment. Now, a lot of those efforts are being stopped. And we don’t know how good this guy was. You know, he was a brilliant, in a sense, smuggler. His loss may be significant. If he was average, he can easily be replaced.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Ronen Bergman, would Israel act alone if — you know, we’re in the realm of speculation, of course, but what does the past tell us, without warning the U.S., and is there now in Israel a fear, certainly a concern about retaliation from Iran?

RONEN BERGMAN: Let’s divide the issue of whether Israel strikes through covert and overt operations.

Usually, when we are talking about targeted killing operations, Israel acts alone. But I would assume that what the secretary of state, Clinton said today, that United States wasn’t involved, is utterly true.

Israel, if learning from the past, would take — at the end of the day, if Israel is convinced that Iran is reaching nuclear military capability, at the end of the day, as a last resort, even without notifying the American government before, Israel would go for an overt aerial strike.

As for your last question, yes, there is an extreme high alert in the Israeli security services guarding Israeli embassies overseas, fearing that what is perceived in Iran as an alleged Mossad operation would lead to an Iranian retaliation. And we have seen before Iranian ability, together with the Hezbollah operatives, working overseas taking out Israeli embassies and Jewish installations overseas.

There is a fear that Iran wouldn’t tolerate anymore the elimination of prominent figures from the nuclear project and, therefore, would order, launch a sort of retaliation, without taking responsibility, not firing missiles, but bombing some sort of Israeli representation outside of Israel.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, David Albright, this — put this in the larger context, because this of course comes at a time of heightened tension, but also a time of renewed sanctions by the West.

DAVID ALBRIGHT: That’s right.

And the sanctions have been engineered for months. And the United States, with Europe and with the pressure from Israel, have really ramped up sanctions on Iran. But the intention all along — and this is really why I think countries bought into it — was that this would have a — would bring Israel to — I’m sorry — would bring Iran to the negotiation table, and they would make meaningful concessions in those negotiations.

The two previous meetings between the Europeans, Americans and others and Iran have really not been productive.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what is the thinking now then about the impact of this covert campaign on — impact one way or another on the status of the sanctions or the effort of the sanctions?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Well, it’s bad timing, if nothing else.

I personally am very much against these kinds of targeted assassinations of nuclear officials. But you have to wonder what — why now, and it’s — and you’re trying to get Iran to the table. Pressure is always a precarious thing to apply. It can backfire.

The sense in the United States, at least, was that it is going to get Iran to the table. But you don’t want to drive Iran into a corner, where they may decide to do the very thing you are trying to prevent, namely, build nuclear weapons.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, David Albright, and Ronen Bergman in Tel Aviv, thanks so much.

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Thank you.