January 12th, 2012
08:00 PM ET

Zenko: Iranian scientists and U.S. targeted killings

Editor's Note: Micah Zenko is a fellow for conflict prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he blogs. You can also follow him on TwitterThe following is reprinted with the permission of CFR.org.

By Micah Zenko, CFR.org

Driving in rush hour traffic yesterday morning in Tehran, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, chemical engineer and department supervisor at the Natanz uranium enrichment plant, was killed. Reportedly, two men on a motorcycle attached a “sticky bomb” to Ahmadi Roshan’s Peugeot, killing the scientist and his bodyguard.Although estimates vary, Ahmadi Roshan is the fifth Iranian official or scientist connected to the country’s nuclear or ballistic missile program who has been violently killed since 2007. Another scientist, Fereydoon Abbasi, narrowly escaped a similar “sticky bomb” assassination attempt in November 2010—he now leads Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization.

Iranian officials quickly pointed to Israel and the United States as likely perpetrators, and the Atomic Energy Organization released a statement affirming its commitment to the nuclear program: “The heinous actions by the criminal Israeli regime and America will not disrupt the path the Iranian people have chosen.”

Additionally, the Iranian permanent representative to the UN, Mohammad Khazaee, sent a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that claimed, but did not provide, “firm evidence that certain foreign quarters are behind such assassinations.” He added, “These quarters have spared no efforts in depriving the Islamic Republic of Iran from its inalienable right to peaceful nuclear energy and called for conducting covert operations ranging from assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists to launching a military strike on Iran as well as sabotaging Tehran’s nuclear program.”

The statements of denial from the Obama administration were atypically emphatic. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded: “I want to categorically deny any United States involvement in any kind of act of violence inside Iran.” Tommy Vietor, spokesperson of the National Security Council, said, “The United States had absolutely nothing to do with this.”

In previous attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists, U.S. officials have been evasive and far less forthcoming. In January 2010, after the assassination of physics professor Massoud Ali Mohammadi, a State Department spokesperson rejected the allegations of U.S. involvement as “absurd.” Later that year in November 2010, coordinated attacks targeted two nuclear scientists, killing one and severely injuring the other. State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley did not directly address the incident: “All I can say is we decry acts of terrorism wherever they occur and beyond that, we do not have any information on what happened.”

Recent statements of denial are unique because, normally, the U.S. government does not comment “as a matter of policy” on targeted killings. Since September 11, the U.S. government has conducted similar operations—outside of the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq—in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and possibly elsewhere. According to anonymous U.S. officials, drone strikes have killed more than 2,000 militants and approximately fifty noncombatants in Pakistan alone since 2004, although the number of civilian casualties ishotly contested. A few dozen suspected militants have also been killed outside of Pakistan.

Despite over ten years and 300 operations, there is no transparency and little congressional oversight over the U.S. policy of targeted killings. We know that the United States has somewhere between four and seven kill lists; kill lists are not coordinated; and U.S.citizens— possibly including children—can be targeted, thus denying their Fifth Amendment due process protections.

The reason these operations remain “secret” is that if the Bush or Obama administrations were to acknowledge any aspect of the program, it would create an architecture of justification and precedence for which the U.S. government can be held publicly accountable. Even democratic governments want limited oversight and total autonomy, especially when authorizing sensitive military operations.

Many senior U.S. officials who have left government since September 11 admit that the degree of transparency is inadequate. Jack Goldsmith, legal adviser for the Defense Department during the Bush Administration, questioned, “What are the procedures being used to ensure the right people are being targeted?” John B. Bellinger III, former legal advisor for the State Department, has similarly argued: “The [Obama] administration needs to work harder to explain and defend its use of drones as lawful and appropriate—to allies and critics—if it wants to avoid losing international support and potentially exposing administration officials to legal liability.” Former director of national intelligence Dennis Blair also called for public acknowledgment of the drone program: “You need a way to make it something that is part of your overt policy.”

According to administration officials, suspected members of Al Qaeda and affiliated groups can be legally targeted and killed because they fall under the September 2001,Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which passed the House 420 to 1 and the Senate 98 to 0. According to the AUMF, the “President has authority under the Constitution to take action to deter and prevent acts of international terrorism against the United States.”

Who is authorizing the assassination of scientists and officials in Iran? President Bushreportedly authorized covert—although nonlethal—action to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program. It is unknown if President Obama extended the Bush administration authorization (as he did for Pakistani drone strikes), but it is highly doubtful that he expanded them to permit lethal force against civilian scientists. Moreover, it is unlikely that the U.S. intelligence community has been permitted to share information with other countries or foreign agents in order for them to use lethal force.

The absence of transparency and oversight of ten years of targeted killings by the CIA and special operations forces makes U.S. denials regarding Iran less credible. President Obama famously said, “The CIA gets what it needs.” In this case, I hope that the CIA did not request the authority to kill Iranian civilian scientists and, if they did, that the president did not acquiesce.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Micah Zenko.

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Topics: Covert Operations • Iran • Military

soundoff (33 Responses)
  1. Skeptic

    Why doesn't Iran fight back?

    January 12, 2012 at 9:23 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Indeed, Iran should worry and look for its Achilles heel. The perpetrators didn't come from outside!

      January 13, 2012 at 4:49 am | Reply
    • Mario Cotez

      I don't for a minute believe, US is not involved in killing of the Iranian civilians, or at a minimum knowing about it beforehand. The fellow who was caught in Pakistan was also categorically denied to be a CIA agent. He turned out to be a CIA contractor. It is obvious Israel is pulling the trigger and actually planning the killings. The Iranians arrested one of the terrorists in a previous assassination and based on various background confirmations, his televised confession was judged very credible. He was recruited by Israel.

      January 15, 2012 at 10:35 am | Reply
    • truthfor477

      In Antarctica have found oil. The government of the USA has declared – to a bloody regime of penguins the end will soon come.
      You have an oil? Then we go to you / USA, Pentagon
      Have been killed so Indians because of their earths... So killed Iraqis for oil... So killed Libyans… So will kill also others

      January 22, 2012 at 7:07 am | Reply
  2. Onesmallvoice

    Whoever is responsible for this cold blooded murder needs to be brought to justice and the country or countries involved need to be economically sanctioned, including ours if that's the case! Enough of this lawlessness!!!

    January 13, 2012 at 12:02 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      State authorities can get away with murdering dissidents. Ordinary citizens are brought to justice for killing one another.

      January 13, 2012 at 5:00 am | Reply
    • Hahahahahahaha

      It was warm blooded murder. But hey, one dead Iranian nuclear scientist is a good start. Hahahahahahahahahaha

      January 13, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Reply
      • Martin

        Reza Esfandiari:WSJ Opinion page has been lgearly a venue for the expression of proto-fascist ideas in US.It is a form of propaganda and I suppose there are people who enjoy reading this type of material.Occasionally, there are useful opinions there but almost always they are expressed by people who actually know what they are talking about – experts in Law, or Government, or Economics.Mr. Kantor is pushing the Israeli agenda; perhaps thinking that he is helping save Jews from another Shoah.No reason to be excited about it.

        February 12, 2012 at 1:08 am |
  3. Gerald Getz

    I think Iran is in for many more problems if they don't cooperate and have full openness they are running out of room to negotiate. Unless they and or the West relent there will be much more to come.

    January 13, 2012 at 12:51 am | Reply
  4. ahmed

    Killing is not allowed. Russia USA ISRAEL LEBANON have the weapons but why is Iran being sanctioned. Go for it Iran

    January 13, 2012 at 2:25 am | Reply
    • Thinker23

      The problem is not HAVING a weapon but willingness to USE it. You will understand it much better if you'll recall that most of us do not have troubles with policemen carrying guns but we start worrying if violent murderers carry the very same guns...

      January 13, 2012 at 5:47 am | Reply
  5. Benedict

    With the rhetoric adopted by Israel,the US and Iran,it's hard to tell who is doing all the assassination attempts on the Iranian nuclear scientist.It's hard not to point the finger at the US and Israel for these actions and there is justification for this line of thought,since Israel is totally uncomfortable with the presence of a nuclear-armed Iran who has always championed the destruction of the Jewish nation and an American government that has always pandered to the interest of Israeli-American political action lobbies.

    January 13, 2012 at 5:06 am | Reply
  6. TheSound

    The sound of an exploding Iranian nuclear scientist: Sssssssssss Boooooooooom Baaaaaaaaaaa!!!! What was he doing with that sheep in the back seat?

    January 13, 2012 at 8:57 am | Reply
  7. IRAN IS THE SNAKE HEAD AND WE MUST GET RED OF THIS EVIL SNAKE

    I dont understand why Obama so silent....8000 people already killed by bashar al kalb in syria, many more killed in iran prison, and hizboallah are killing the oppositions in lebanon ,iraq and syria.......Qadhafi killed few hundreds and he was gone...is that because suria have not much oil!? how about IRAN THEY are helping syria and hizboallah and they have oil , evil helping evil, terrorist helping terrorist why USA is silent!? attack now before it is too late. IRAN WITH A NUCK IS LIKE A DEVIL IN CONTROL OF THE UNIVERSE. If obama want to win this election he must attack iran now. get red of the snake head and the rest will be dead slowley.....

    January 13, 2012 at 9:40 am | Reply
  8. barberian

    in libya they killed the leader a muslim after torturing him and urinate on him then they put his body on the floor and ask other stupid muslims to take pictures of the dead body!? is this ISLAM!? THIS EVIL BEHAVIOUR ROOTED IN them and then when USA marines urinate on the muslims bodies they say oohhhhh NO you cant do that!? what a hipocrits.

    January 13, 2012 at 9:49 am | Reply
  9. IRAN IS EVIL

    Shoot and kill those shiia Muslims thugs, why USA are cowered toward Iran, that's why we must elect the republican again, those dark evil empire of Iran must end they must be destroyed.
    UK, USA, France, Germany, Italy and all the NATO force must start attacking now before it is too late, we must attack 24 hours round the clock, all target , command and control, radars, soft targets, all boats and ships, all submarines, all the reactors, all the government building, dams, QUM, ayatollah house and compound, destroy those evil

    January 13, 2012 at 8:32 pm | Reply
    • Gordy

      Why don't you do it?

      January 14, 2012 at 8:44 pm | Reply
  10. Tactical Conflict Management Solutions

    I am easy to find I gave you my address in 2007. Kill me Allahu Akbar.

    January 14, 2012 at 9:12 pm | Reply
  11. Tactical Conflict Management Solutions

    I am unarmed, here I am kill me, you have my address. Do it.

    January 14, 2012 at 9:20 pm | Reply
  12. Tactical Conflict Management Solutions

    Look a lot of people have tried to kill me, corrupt officials over ICE using OC, barium meal but, In 2007 I said to Cheney do you want me to keep working or kill myself, I'll step in front of a bus. As you know you let them out of the trap. Either way I was dead but I die on my own terms. I can't let you have nuclear weapons.

    I notice Ahmadi did not visit Evo, coca mate. You just keep sending down that pure ICE, sweet recipe, and the Basiji, its snowing.

    January 14, 2012 at 10:00 pm | Reply
  13. obama do somthing to syria

    نعم الحرب الطائفية في سوريا موجودة ومنذ حوالي نصف قرن ومن قبل النظام الطائفي الذي حول سورية الى محمية ثم باعها لأيران التي بدأت بالتغلغل في كل شرايين ومفاصل الحياة السورية واشترت وشيعت الكثير من المسؤولين وخاصة الأمنيين وبعض ما يسمى بالمشايخ والشيوخ والوجهاء الساقطين. لقد وصل به الأمر أن اصبحوا يمارسون طقوس اللطم في الجامع الأموي. أما ما يقوم به النظام الأن فهو تطهير عرقي ومذهبي بمعنى الكلمة. قتل واذلال وقمع وانتهاك حرمات وكبت حريات وسرقة وفساد وخيانة... ستدفعون ثمن هذه الجرائم كاملة مكملة

    January 15, 2012 at 1:21 pm | Reply
  14. asad is war criminal and he must be hanged

    with out attacking bashar al asad and take him to court as they killed 8000 people , nothing will happen he take money and weapons from russia and iran pays the bill, iraq pay him cash too plus free oil those shiia thugs are killers and terrorists all helping hizboallah , when usa and un will wake up!!/ attack now and get red of syrian thugs so we can be ready for the evil iranians.

    January 23, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Reply
  15. FACTS

    THESE ARE FACTS, BASHAR AL KALAB OF SYRIA KILLED 8692 TO DATE, PUT 132000 IN PRISON, HIS ARMY RA..PED 2000 SUNNI WOMEN AND 2300 KURDS, AND MORE THAN 500 CHRISTEANS.
    THEY ARE ONLY 12% OF POPLUATION CONTROLING 88% OF SUNNI .KURDS AND OTHERS.
    IRAN PAY RUSSIA CASH AND RUSSIA SEND WEAPONS SECOND HANDS ARMS TO SYRIA, IRAQ SEND CASH AND TERRORISTS TO HEL ASAD TO KILL OTHER PEOPLE AND ALL THOSE HELPING HIZBOALLAH, RUSSIA HATE MUSLIMS AND THEY ARE NOT ALLOWING DEMOCRACY IN THE CHECHNIA AND OTHER MUSLIM STATES INSIDE RUSSIA THEY FEAR THAT RUSSIA IS NEXT. RUSSIAN PEOPLE WILL REVOLT AGAIN AGANIST THOSE COMMUNISTS , MIDDLEAST SHOULD GET RED OF ALL RUSSIAN EMBASIES AND DONT DEAL WITH THEM.

    January 26, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Reply
  16. COUNTER FITED DOLLARS AND IRAQI DINAR DONE BY IRAN

    علم هدهد سليمان ومن مصدر امني مهم , أن هناك طائرة نقل إيرانية تحط أسبوعيا في مطار النجف الاشرف وهي محملة بالمليارات من الدنانير العراقية المزورة من إيران وبعد ذلك يتم نقل هذه المليارات من الأوراق النقدية العراقية المزورة تحت حماية أمنية مشددة وبإشراف عدد معين من كبار المسئولين في أحزاب الائتلاف الوطني إلى البنك التجاري العراقي فرع النجف الاشرف لغرض إيداعها به , ومن ثم سحب البديل عنها بالعملة الصعبة والتي تقدر بالمليارات من الدولارات ثم تحمل سراً بنفس الطائرة لتقلع بها إلى طهران . this is a fact every week an Iranian plan fly to iraq and directly to najaf province not baghdad in this najaf province the evil province in iraq , this plan brings billions of Iraqi dinars faked Iran dinar from iran and exchange it with USA dollars in janaf under the watch of al hakeem and al maleki group, bringing billions of dollars back to iran and then give to Syria , Russia and Hezbollah. WHY USA DONT DO NOTHING , WHAT IS THE USE OF SANCTIONING IRAN AND KEEPING THE EVIL IRAQI PRIM MINSTER DOING THIS EVIL DEEDS WAKE UP OBAMA

    January 29, 2012 at 11:31 am | Reply
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    May 13, 2012 at 10:33 pm | Reply

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