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Covert Ops in Iran

By Taylor Marvin

Another Iranian nuclear scientists was assassinated this morning. From the Washington Post:

“An Iranian scientist involved in purchasing equipment for the Islamic Republic’s main uranium-enrichment facility was assassinated Wednesday when a magnetic bomb attached to his car exploded in morning rush-hour traffic, Iranian media reported.

Iranian officials accused the United States and Israel of orchestrating the attack, which also killed the scientist’s driver.”

The Telegraph has video from the scene:

It’s unclear how the US is involved in these operations. Secretary of State Clinton categorically denied any US role in today’s killing, but since this denial comes from the State Department rather than CIA it’s less than entirely credible.* Even if these targeted killings are being run by Israel — the most likely possibility — US intelligence services could play major intelligence gathering and support roles. Despite the protests of many liberal commentators, these operations are probably legal under US law: as Dan Trombly pointed out this morning, the broad jurisdiction of past US AUMFs likely cover assassinating Iranian civilians.

Whatever agency is actual responsibility, these killings are bad policy. Leaving aside the dubious morality of gunning down civilians in front of their wives, covert action within Iran is not in the long term interests of the US and Israel. Once a nuclear program has been established they are extremely difficult to destroy — Iran’s nuclear facilities are too protected and widespread for US or Israeli airstrikes to stand a reasonable chance of destroying them. Killing nuclear scientists appears to have had some success delaying Iranian progress towards a bomb, but it’s unlikely that American and Israeli covert action could counter accelerated Iranian bomb development. It’s unclear how serious the Iranian nuclear program actually is, and targeted killings within Iran create a strong incentive for devoting more resources to successfully testing a nuclear device. Past countries to have abandoned nuclear weapons programs did so out of choice, not coercion. Action against Iran makes a nuclear deterrent a defensible choice and weakens the (admittedly weak) chances of a successful diplomatic solution.

The United State’s long-term Iran strategy aims to encourage liberal reform within Iran. Killing Iranian citizens directly conflicts with this goal by enfranchising authoritarian forces within Iranian society. Every time an Iranian civilian is killed, the narrative of an Iran under siege pushed by conservatives within the Iranian government becomes stronger, and the legitimate justification for a nuclear deterrent greater. Given that there’s no reason to believe that a nuclear armed Iran could not be deterred by US and Israeli nuclear deterrents, weakening moderates within the Iranian government for the sake of transient delays in the Iranian nuclear program is simply bad policy. While is no real prospect of democratic reform in Iran anytime soon, continued attacks against Iranian civilians legitimately antagonize Iranian society for no real reason.

But it’s also worth remembering that assassinating nuclear scientists is less disruptive to Iranian society than liberals’ weapon of choice, sanctions. Direct action against the Iranian nuclear program — like covert assassinations and Stuxnet — harm only the programs and individuals targeted, as well as folks unlucky enough to be in the path of assassins bullets. Sanctions hurt all Iranians, especially those outside the elite. The tougher sanctions authorized in the 2012 US National Defense Authorization Act have already had severe effects on the Iranian economy, forcing down the value of its currency and driving up the price of basic commodities. These new sanctions are much tougher than any imposed in the past, and may successfully force the Iranian leadership to the bargaining table. It’s also possible that popular anger over rising prices could be directed at the autocratic Iranian government, rather than the United States, destabilizing the regime. But it’s unlikely any of these hopeful scenarios will occur: Iran’s leaders know they have public opinion behind them on the nuclear issue, the world appetite for sanctions is weakening, and there appears to be little popular appetite for another Iranian revolution.

Even if sanctions aren’t likely to force an end to Iran’s nuclear program, they are costly. It’s senseless to pretend that sanctions don’t hurt ordinary Iranians more than the military and nuclear programs they’re designed to target. Of course, the economy-wide effects of sanctions are often a feature, not a bug — after all, sanctions without economic bite are unlikely to coerce defiant leaders. But sanctions have a poor track record as a coercive tool, and it’s more likely that the NDAA’s tougher sanctions on the Iranian financial sector will just stir up further anti-foreign sentiment in Iran and enfranchisement conservative factions than catalyze diplomatic progress. The majority of Iranians appear to support the nuclear program, and US-led sanctions’ obvious damage to the Iranian economy is likely to reinforce the perception that nuclear status is a legitimate national prestige project and deterrent.

Killing scientists is bad for ordinary Iranians, but sanctions are worse. While complaints among American liberals that assassinating Iranian civilians fits the definition of ‘terrorism’ are valid, it’s also worth noting that Iranian scientists involved in their countries nuclear program are acutely aware of the risks of their involvement, making them arguably legitimate military targets. Semantics aside, sanctions hurt all Iranians, and are if anything more harmful to the long-term prospects of liberal reform in Iran than assassinating scientists and military officers. That doesn’t make covert action in Iran a wise policy, but advocates of sanctions over targeted killings should remember it.

*Update: Spokespersons for other US government agencies have also denied US involvement and denounced the attack.
Updated to add video.

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