Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

The existential imperative and Iran’s nuclear scientists

Over the past five years, five scientists and engineers associated with Iran’s nuclear program have died violent deaths, and one survived a bombing attack. The latest incident took place last week. While news reports of such attacks are incomplete, and perhaps inaccurate, there is little doubt that someone has mounted an assassination campaign against Tehran’s ...

MEHDI MARIZAD/AFP/Getty Images
MEHDI MARIZAD/AFP/Getty Images
MEHDI MARIZAD/AFP/Getty Images

Over the past five years, five scientists and engineers associated with Iran's nuclear program have died violent deaths, and one survived a bombing attack. The latest incident took place last week. While news reports of such attacks are incomplete, and perhaps inaccurate, there is little doubt that someone has mounted an assassination campaign against Tehran's nuclear scientific community. I've reviewed the history of attacks on scientists involved in nuclear programs, detailed reasons why a state might undertake such a campaign, and assessed the odds of its success in the current issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

Very likely, an existential imperative is driving the attempts to kill Iranian nuclear scientists; a group or a state feels that its very existence is threatened by the Iranian nuclear program, and is willing to undertake significant risks for a payoff that may well be quite limited, even by its own lights. Delaying a nuclear weapons program might be possible through such attacks, but stopping one is not. It is difficult to imagine a state with a scientific and industrial base large enough to sustain a nuclear weapons program, but so small that killing a few individuals would cripple the effort. Moreover, without detailed and intimate knowledge of such a program (which is very hard to come by and might be put to better use in other ways), it is impossible to know whom to target.

On the other side of the ledger, the assassination campaign has reportedly already increased Iran's operational security, may well limit visibility into Iran's illicit nuclear activities, and could provoke retaliation. Moreover, the head of Iran's nuclear program, himself a target of an attack, bitterly demanded that the International Atomic Energy Agency deny complicity in the violence in a speech to the Agency's General Conference-not auspicious for access by international inspectors.

Over the past five years, five scientists and engineers associated with Iran’s nuclear program have died violent deaths, and one survived a bombing attack. The latest incident took place last week. While news reports of such attacks are incomplete, and perhaps inaccurate, there is little doubt that someone has mounted an assassination campaign against Tehran’s nuclear scientific community. I’ve reviewed the history of attacks on scientists involved in nuclear programs, detailed reasons why a state might undertake such a campaign, and assessed the odds of its success in the current issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

Very likely, an existential imperative is driving the attempts to kill Iranian nuclear scientists; a group or a state feels that its very existence is threatened by the Iranian nuclear program, and is willing to undertake significant risks for a payoff that may well be quite limited, even by its own lights. Delaying a nuclear weapons program might be possible through such attacks, but stopping one is not. It is difficult to imagine a state with a scientific and industrial base large enough to sustain a nuclear weapons program, but so small that killing a few individuals would cripple the effort. Moreover, without detailed and intimate knowledge of such a program (which is very hard to come by and might be put to better use in other ways), it is impossible to know whom to target.

On the other side of the ledger, the assassination campaign has reportedly already increased Iran’s operational security, may well limit visibility into Iran’s illicit nuclear activities, and could provoke retaliation. Moreover, the head of Iran’s nuclear program, himself a target of an attack, bitterly demanded that the International Atomic Energy Agency deny complicity in the violence in a speech to the Agency’s General Conference-not auspicious for access by international inspectors.

Given the limited probable payoffs and the significant likely costs, an assassination campaign can only be interpreted as an act of desperation, driven by an Iranian nuclear program that has now operated for years in violation of International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors and United Nations Security Council resolutions. Acts of desperation are often an ominous sign that things will soon get worse.

William Tobey is a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs was most recently deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration.

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