Are Iran Assassinations Working?

The assassination of another Iranian nuclear scientist raises the question of whether such a program can work.

Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, a professor at Tehran’s technical university and alleged head of department at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, is the fourth Iranian linked to the country’s nuclear program to be assassinated in two years.  

The event was only the latest in series of recent scuffles between Iran and the West, but it still raises some key questions. For a start, what does it mean for relations between Iran and the United States and Israel? And are these assassinations having the desired effect on Iran?

In short, the answer is nothing, and no.

Although the United States was quick to deny involvement, and the Israelis refused to comment, the assassinations are very likely part of collaborative and long running policy of sabotage in Iran. Methods employed have included bombings, industrial sabotage, techniques such as the alleged Israeli computer worm Stuxnet, and of course the much publicized assassinations of Iranian scientists.  But is the policy working?

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If the goal is to delay and degrade the program and pressure Iran, then to a certain extent, the policy has been effective. Assassinations of nuclear scientists are intended to deter potential recruits and terrorize those working on the program. Industrial sabotage, coupled with sanctions, has made it harder for Iran to obtain the parts and components necessary for its program. It’s difficult to judge to what extent the program has been degraded because it is still advancing, but there have clearly been a number of setbacks to it. For example, analysts judged that the Stuxnet malware delayed Iran from expanding its centrifuge program at Natanz.  But the most notable success is the constant pressure the covert campaign is putting on regime, not to mention the effect on the program’s prestige.

But if the objective of this policy is to change Iran’s strategic decision to pursue nuclear weapons, then it isn’t working. Tehran is continuing its progress with its nuclear program and has stepped up its PR effort, announcing that it has begun 20 percent enrichment at Fordow and that it has succeeded in producing fuel rods for its reactor in Arak

Given the risks involved, is the campaign a valuable policy instrument?

The covert campaign could end up having the opposite effect than the one we want, and may indeed harden Iranian resolve or push them to retaliate. Iran’s latest warmongering includes threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, which sees approximately 35 percent of the world’s oil transported by sea. While Iran is unlikely to deliver on its threat because it would be the first to suffer from such a policy, it has many other options for fermenting unrest and causing trouble for U.S. and Israeli interests in the region. Some analysts argue that the possibility of Iranian retaliation is growing. Increasing the risk of confrontation with Iran in order to delay Iran’s program by a mere few months therefore seems like quite a gamble.

Assassinations, as part of a concerted policy of sabotage, have succeeded in slowing down Iran’s progress and “buying time” for diplomats and policymakers. But it’s not clear what might be done with this extra time, and the policy risks making Iranians more assertive and more motivated to pursue their aims.

The fact is that this isn’t a long-term policy solution to the Iranian nuclear problem. The only real solution is to find a way to change Iran’s strategic calculation to pursue its nuclear program.

Dina Esfandiary is a Research Analyst and Project Coordinator at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.