If Mossad assassins were behind the killing of an Iranian nuclear scientist on Wednesday, it would be the latest chapter in a long history of Israeli covert action against foes best not confronted with full force.
As always, Israeli officials declined any comment on the death of Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan, who was blown up in his car, while Iran itself immediately pinned the blame on Israel.
Cold-eyed calculus guides what Israeli officials call “precision thwarting,” a euphemism that strives to focus blame on those marked for death, while conveying reluctance to escalate the shadow war.
Critics condemn all such attacks on moral grounds and also question the long-term efficiency of targeted killings, but Israeli officials, drawing on years of experience in the murky practice, believe they play a vital role in defending the state.
When it comes to Iran, whose uranium enrichment and ballistic missile projects have suffered a surge of spectacular and often bloody mishaps in recent months, Israel measures the gains in terms of the delays they cause.
“They are not keeping to the schedules they would like to keep to,” former Mossad spymaster Meir Dagan said in a recent television interview, smilingly crediting the apparent sabotage spree to “God, who controls everything.”
The daylight killings of atomic technicians such as Ahmadi-Roshan — who, like others before him, fell victim to an explosive device attached to his car by a passing motorcyclist — obviously deplete Iran’s pool of nuclear experts.
It also provokes panic in surviving colleagues, an Israel official said, generating a phenomenon that Mossad veterans dub “virtual defection.”
“It’s not that we’ve been seeing mass resignations, but rather a sense of spreading paranoia given the degree to which their security has been compromised,” said the official, who has extensive Iran expertise. “It means they have to take more precautions, including, perhaps, being a little less keen to stand out for excellence in their nuclear work. That slows things down.”
The activation this week of an Iranian enrichment plant deep in a mountain drew condemnation from world powers which, along with many Gulf Arabs, see bomb-making potential in a nuclear program that Tehran insists is for peaceful energy needs.
Ahmadi-Roshan was at least the third expert linked to Iran’s nuclear program to be killed in the last two years.
“I don’t know who settled the score with the Iranian scientist, but I am definitely not shedding any tears,” Israel’s army spokesman Yoav Mordechai said on his Facebook page.
Happy to deflect the blame, Israeli officials say many people have an interest in sabotaging Iranian operations.
“I think several players, not only Israel, are active [in Iran],” former Mossad deputy director Ilan Mizrahi said on Wednesday. “It’s not only countries, it is movements. You have the Iranian opposition, which is very strong. They have their own capabilities inside Iran.”
Yet Israel has an admitted history of state-sponsored assassination and intimidation, from letter-bombs it sent German scientists serving Egypt’s missile program in the 1960s to the Mossad hunt, using guns and booby-traps, for Palestinians involved in killing 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics.
More recently, Israeli air-launched missiles and special forces picked off Palestinian uprising leaders. In 1995, motorbike-borne gunmen killed Islamic Jihad chief Fathi Shiqaqi in Malta, and another suspected Mossad team smothered Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in his Dubai hotel in 2010.