Comment: Drawing Careful Conclusions from the Iran Assassination

Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan's carBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS* | |
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

13 Responses to Comment: Drawing Careful Conclusions from the Iran Assassination

  1. Without reading too far down or into it, I’d guess uninformed that the very supporters or people running the program for an arsenal of nuclear weapons could have given the young man a deadline which he didn’t meet or somehow the web of all parties was irritated by a remote or event that triggered this. Cartels dismantle their own honour/honor sometimes and even gradually self-destruct. I don’t know much but this is interesting and good info for a movie with like reference to a true story if officials can get the facts in as they truly are.

  2. drshiv007 says:

    But the MO is clearly pointing towards The Mossad who has time and again proven to be very capable in carry out such covert ops. The snatch operation of a nuclear whistleblower ( can’t recall his name) and systematic killing of the terrorists responsible for Munich olympic massacre are an example. Also, a nuclear weapon epowerment status by Iran will most directly affect the Israel. Besides, The CIA don’t has that temperament anymore to take an offensive action of such magnitude.
    Meanwhile, whether this recent assassination seriously cripples the Iranian nuclear programme or only leaves a dent in it, is anyone’s guess.

  3. Kidd says:

    no matter , irans intel abilities seem rather porous and suspect , not to mention dysfunctional. can they not intercept or discern any clues of people coming and going. its as if there is no intel
    service and its a ‘what , me worry?’ world to them. a very not up to speed organization and country who should feel totally embarrassed by recent events , whether inside or outside the their border

  4. intelNews says:

    @drshiv007: I do not disagree that the MO points toward the Mossad, especially when one is aware of Operation DAMOCLES, among others. @kidd: I think Iran is considering this mostly through a cost-benefit analysis. I do not believe that such assassinations seriously obstruct the Iranian nuclear program, although they are certainly succeeding in driving it further underground. [JF]

  5. nico says:

    Well, I kind of agree that the assassination of a couple of scientists probably doesn’t stop the program but viewed in terms of a couple of “terminations” a year, it should put a dent in the program. Also, the agency that does this, has to know which target would slow the program.

    I doubt that they are only targeting randomly or just senior officials, they must have info that leads them to believe that the termination will slow the nuclear program. You don’t bother to mount such a assassination program and not find the right targets.

  6. intelNews says:

    @nico: It is difficult to be certain, given the restricted nature of the information on Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan’s professional and scientific background. However, we should not exclude the possibility that the attack was aimed less against a particular individual and more at the wider Iranian academic community –something like a psychological operation designed to discourage scientists from seeking work in the Iranian nuclear energy program. [JF]

  7. Kidd says:

    someone made the point that these deaths are because the victim was about to flip and turn over valuable evidence of how far along irans nuke program was
    if one wants to put a humorous theory into play, this is like the film Hostel where someone pays a huge sum to fly to iran and gets to ride on the back of a motorbike and attach a bomb to a vehicle locked in traffic and blow up a ‘evil’ scientist .

  8. Anonymous says:

    Alternative options: Would it be unreasonable to reason that Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan was an asset of an external intelligence service and that this assassination was carried out by Iranian CI? Moreover, there might have been internal struggles, how loyal was Ahmadi-Roshan to the program or the current political leadership? Then, he might have been rather dispensable (at 32 he might not have developed unique capacities), and it might have been decided to assassinate him in the hope to rally public support at the moment that sanctions might start to undermine the regime. Nothing but speculations, but still…

  9. intelNews says:

    @Anonymous: There are certainly some who suspect that Ahmadi-Roshan’s assassination may have been a false-flag operation by the Iranian authorities. My personal feeling is that, if the Iranian authorities wanted to do away with Ahmadi-Roshan, they would have done so quietly and privately. There is nothing more humiliating for Iran than to have to admit publicly that Israeli intelligence can kill Iranian scientists effortlessly and at will. [JF]

  10. Anonymous says:

    “Observers of Middle Eastern politics seem to agree that whoever killed Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan on Wednesday essentially sealed the American’s death warrant.”

    Very insightful – as usual…

    Yannis M.

  11. Anonymous says:

    “There is nothing more humiliating for Iran than to have to admit publicly that Israeli intelligence can kill Iranian scientists effortlessly and at will”

    – unless that action (and more accurately the likely subsequent reaction), is itself more useful than any continued application by a technician employed in a relatively peripheral capacity.

    Israel is not without blame, however, look to Tehran first in this instance; the timeline between the respective state-sponsored programmes should assist with this.

  12. Arash says:

    These Terrorist attacks was not to hurt Iran program which as you mentioned correctly will not work that way .It was to put Tehran government in position with no other choice to retaliate so they get the war that they want . In this case UN would have an easy job finding Iranian reason as unacceptable and their action as aggressive so giving all of the world including USA an excuse to support Israel out cry

  13. TFH says:

    It is just sad that someone would die for such a poor reason as to keep discretion to a nation state. Individual life matters more than the life of a nation state due to their fundamental difference, a state can live on in different form for but individuals can not, for them it is the end, end. Or is it?

    Is it perhaps bound to happen? What will those trusted with guarding the realms secret do when the reincarnations of spy’s past with all their knowledge return with perhaps some vengeance?

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