Michael Burleigh
January 14, 2012
The Sydney Morning Herald

OPINION


PHYSICS is an unhealthy line of work in today's Iran. A few days ago, 32-year-old Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan died in his car after two motorcyclists attached a magnetic charge to the door. Roshan can be seen among the men in white coats, beaming modestly behind President Ahmadinejad, in a photo taken a few months ago.

Roshan was not the first and nor will he be the last casualty of a covert war designed either to dissuade Iran from acquiring a bomb, or to prompt retaliatory missteps that will trigger an all-out onslaught by Israel or the US against Iranian nuclear facilities.

 

The identity of the assassins is inherently unknowable - though a good guess would be the dissident Mujahideen-e-Khalq group on behalf of Mossad. The CIA's weak human intelligence presence inside Iran makes Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's categorical denial of American involvement plausible.


Why it is happening is far easier to fathom. Israel, although not the world's sole assassin, has historical form in this area. In 1963, Mossad embarked on Operation Damocles to menace and murder former Nazi rocket scientists who, according to a defecting Austrian, were helping then President Nasser develop rockets that could be equipped with radiological warheads. They received parcel bombs through the post, while their families back in Germany and Austria were threatened with violence. More recently, in 1990, Mossad shot dead Canadian Gerald Bull outside his Brussels apartment. Bull was helping Saddam Hussein improve Scud missiles while developing a long-range ''supergun'' as a sideline.

A similar logic, of degrading an enemy's scientific and technical capacity, was evident from the assassination campaign which Israel waged against key Hamas and Hezbollah figures. Victims included Hamas' Yehiya ''the Engineer'' Ayyash, whose head was blown off in 1996 by what he thought was his mobile phone, and Hezbollah's Imad Mugniyah, scraped from the street in 2008 after he was killed leaving a party at the Iranian embassy in Damascus. Both men had a lethal expertise which would be difficult to replace.
 

The Israelis believe that anyone who knowingly participates in developing weapons of mass destruction or terrorism should be aware that these are not risk-free activities. Iranian scientists know full well that electronic switches are used in nuclear triggers, and that enriching uranium beyond a certain percentage is not for the production of medical isotopes. And they accept the considerable financial rewards involved. If there are questions about the morality of killing such men, there are questions about the morality of their work in the first place.

Recent history has mixed lessons. In 1943 and 1944 the RAF and USAAF carried out repeat strikes on the German V-2 rocket launch site at Peenemunde, where the hydrogen peroxide fuel was also produced. They were not unduly concerned whether scientists and engineers were killed too, nor foreign slave labourers, provided the V-2s ceased raining down on London.
 

About the same time, Norwegian agents carried out a more morally fastidious operation to disable the Nazi heavy-water plant at Vemork, after the failure of raids and a glider-borne commando operation. Eventually, they not only got inside the plant to destroy its machinery, but sank a ferry containing railway wagonloads of the finished product in a fjord. While doing so, they scrupulously avoided causing any civilian casualties, by for instance attacking on a Sunday morning when children would not be taking the ferry to school.
 

Meanwhile, physicists and engineers are not subject to ethical codes in the way that biologists are with animal or human experimentation. Indeed, scientists routinely claim the quest for knowledge trumps everything, as those who worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos boastfully announced. Robert Oppenheimer said: ''If you are a scientist, you cannot stop such a thing … You believe that it is good to find out how the world works.'' He and his colleagues at least had the excuse that both the science and the weaponised atom bomb were untested, at least against a real city. Of course they could employ the compartmentalisation argument, rather like railway timetablers and dispatchers who sent trains to Auschwitz. What about the engine drivers and signalmen while we are about it? More plausibly, they can point to dual use, like Fritz Haber, who discovered how to synthesise ammonia into explosives, toxic gas and fertiliser that feeds half the world's population. But then firms that sold base chemicals to Saddam Hussein could make that claim too, and the Kurds got no fertilisers, but murderous clouds of gas.
 

Today's Iranian physicists can view a nuclear bomb detonating on the internet, and can read about Hiroshima in any number of books, starting with John Hersey's shocking 1945 account. They work for a regime that has explicitly threatened Israel (and by implication many ambient Palestinians) with such a weapon. I shall not shed any tears whenever one of these scientists encounters the unforgiving men on motorbikes, men who live in the real world rather than a laboratory or philosophy seminar. Except that if Israel ventures down this road, I cannot think of much of an argument to prevent Iran following them, and then anyone else who decides to follow.



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