Unnatural Events

David Patrikarakos · The Iranian Impasse

As assassinations go, last Wednesday’s killing of an Iranian nuclear scientist was unusually competent. Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, who worked at Iran’s Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant, was blown up when a passing motorcyclist slapped a magnetic bomb onto his car that killed everyone inside but left the area around the vehicle unscathed. It was the fourth killing of an Iranian nuclear scientist in the last two years. An explosion at a missile base near Tehran on 12 November 2011 killed 18 people including Brigadier General Hassan Moghaddam, the architect of Iran’s missile programme. Take into account the Stuxnet computer virus that attacked the centrifuge system at Natanz, not to mention several defections of key scientific personnel, and it is clear that ‘non-diplomatic’ solutions to the Iranian impasse have become the norm.

The latest killing followed confirmation last week that Iran has begun enriching uranium at its underground plant at Fordo, prompting more international fears of an Iranian dash for a nuclear bomb. November’s blast followed an IAEA report that Iran had tested the fitting of a nuclear warhead onto its Shahab-3 missile. At the end of last year, Western powers vowed to sanction Iranian oil and a short while later an Iranian mob broke into the British embassy in Tehran. In response to Wednesday’s assassination, a government newspaper intimated that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps might retaliate in kind. Iran has threatened to close the Straits of Hormuz through which 20 per cent of the world’s traded oil passes; if it does, Washington says it will reopen them by any mean necessary.

‘Tit for tat’ now seems inadequate to describe the dangerous escalation of arguably the world’s gravest political crisis. No one has claimed responsibility for the assassinations, explosions or cyber war, but Mossad is thought to be behind them and has done little to dispel the rumours. A couple of years ago I asked Dan Halutz, the former IDF chief of staff,whether Israel had indeed bombed a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007. He smiled and said nothing. On Tuesday, Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz, Israel’s military chief of staff, informed a special parliamentary committee that Iran should expect more ‘unnatural’ events in 2012. Happy New Year.

It is hard to see what Israel gains from the assassinations. Trying to disable Iran’s nuclear programme one scientist at a time will take longer than solving the peace process. The argument that assassinations scare other scientists into resigning doesn’t seem plausible. Apart from anything else, Iran does not employ workplace guidelines that allow for the resignations of key personnel on projects of national importance. In fact, the tangible effect of the assassinations has already been seen: Iran hunkers down and speeds things up.

Much of this is to with political messaging. The Iranian message – ‘We are strong, you won’t push us about’ – meets its Israeli counterpart: ‘We are strong, we will push you about.’ A clash of obstinacies that in many ways echoes the last ten years of circulatory negotiations. It is also about frustration and a perceived lack of options. Diplomacy has gone nowhere; all-out war with Iran is, thankfully, unthinkable. I have never met a European, American or Israeli diplomat or politician who thinks it is a good idea (or who believes their country could afford it). It would be Iraq cubed.

As Norman Dombey has pointed out, an Iranian dash for the bomb would require the expulsion of IAEA inspectors, which the Americans are sure won’t happen. ‘If Iran did this,’ a White House staffer told me last year, ‘we would just bomb Natanz and they know it; they wouldn’t be so stupid.’ As far as military strikes against the Iranian reactors go, the logistical difficulties – with key facilities underground and spread out across a vast country – are severe. There is no appetite in the Pentagon for strikes, and while the Israelis leave the option ‘on the table’, their capability is less certain. ‘The Israelis tell us they can do it,’ the staffer told me, ‘our military says they can’t.’

So a covert, low-level campaign of attacks and killings it is then. But waging this sort of war is not without risks, including the risk of the undesirable escalation we are now seeing. As ever, much of the problem with Iran’s nuclear programme is Western fear of the programme. The Americans know that if they can’t show progress in slowing down enrichment or in getting Iran to turn over its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, pressure within the US and from Israel will rise. Israel might not be able to destroy all the programme’s facilities but it can do something. Washington is sure of its own red line, but for Israel, who knows?


  • 16 January 2012 at 2:57pm
    Seth Edenbaum says:
    You write: "The Iranian message... meets its Israeli counterpart."
    I'm sorry but you have that reversed. The ubiquitous US/Israeli message is meeting a response, in Iran as elsewhere.

    Obama press conference 2009:
    Helen Thomas:" you know of any country in the Middle East that has nuclear weapons?"
    Obama: "I don't want to speculate..."

  • 16 January 2012 at 3:42pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    The reasons for the assassinations are fairly clear. The Israelis like to leave messages that they are on top of their game and that they will strike wherever and whenever they think that it is necessary. Six Days' War, kidnap Eichmann, you name it, they will do it. This arouses the admiration of their supporters and strengthens the determination of their opponents. Will they ever turn this ingenuity to solving the conflict with the Palestinians? They never waste an opportunity to waste an opportunity

    • 16 January 2012 at 9:33pm
      P. Ami says: @ Geoff Roberts
      As I see it, Mr. Roberts, this is an incongruous line of reasoning you propose. First, the 6-Day War was a defense of the nation. As you seem to be associating Israel's response to acts of war by various Arab nations with how they respond to the Palestinian situation, I wonder if you suggest the audacity to Israel's victory is the real issue rather then the fact that Arabs were engaging in a war with the Jewish State. Further, you are bringing the Entebbe raid into this discussion. I once again wonder if the audacity of Israel's successful rescue of hostages is somehow the problem you have with the whole circumstance, or was it the actual hostage taking by Arab terrorists and their other anti-Semitic allies that we aught to be critical of? I finally address your third audacious action by Israel, the capture of Eichmann. I wonder if your issue is with the audacity of his capture, his being put before a transparant court, one that upheld all the liberal standards of it's day- or is your problem with the crimes committed by Eichmann and the Nazi regime?

      In order for your historical analogies to be congruous with your final point, that Israel insists on audaciously refusing to come to a peace agreement with the Palestinians, you are associating Israel's position with rescuing hostages, defending itself from Arab attacks, and capturing criminals. Meanwhile the Palestinians are associated with attacks against Israel, hostage taking, and the crimes of the Shoah. I congratulate you for making the correct associations. What I question is why you would end your comment with the premiss that Israel only strengthens the resolve of her enemies by defeating them in war, putting them on trial, and rescuing victims from their captors- and then state that these audacious victories are wasted opportunities? It seems you think Israel should forgo the audacious response and opt instead for letting war-criminals run free, let hostage takers name their price, and to lose wars.

    • 17 January 2012 at 4:48pm
      Geoff Roberts says: @ P. Ami
      Thank you for your very full response. My point was that Israel has always operated on a pre-emptive basis when it comes to dealing with threats and these operations have often been very successful, but nonetheless pre-emptive. Most historians would agree that Israel was justified in attacking in June 1967 but it was a pre-emptive strike against three opponents. The capture of Eichmann was a brilliant and justifiable action to get hold of him and bring him to justice. I did not mention the Entebbe incident. My point was that Israel has a wonderful opportunity to make peace settlements with most of its neighbours and I was quoting Abba Eban (ironically I thought) in the hope that the opportunities caused by the present changes in the political landscape don't go unused. But I see what Israel does whenever a peace proposal is made - they build more settlements to piss off the Palestinians.

    • 17 January 2012 at 6:42pm
      P. Ami says: @ Geoff Roberts
      You are right regarding the Entebbe raid. I thought I had read mention of it, but clearly not from your comment.

      I would argue that Israel does not have any sort of opportunity to make peace with the Palestinians. The Palestinians are in no position to offer peace to Israel and the settlements have nothing to do with that situation. I will explain in the following.

      Hamas is engaged in continuous waves of assaults against Israeli citizens. Israeli citizens are their intended victims and though they often fail to actually kill Israelis, their actions are disruptive to any sort of normative behavior for Israelis who live within 40km of the borders with Gaza. This all goes on under the context of Hamas being itself dedicated to the end of the Jewish State. Recall that in the last election held by the PA, Hamas won majority status. Hamas and Fatah were both elected into the government of the Palestinians and in little time devolved their system into a civil war. This war led to two separate camps, neither of whom recognize the other's right to negotiate with Israel. One pretends they want to negotiate while the other (the more popular party) does not even bother with pretense. You might ask, why do I say that one side (in this case Fatah) is pretending to want to negotiate? It is very simple. Netanyahu established a 10-month long building freeze in 2010. Over the course of these 10-months the PA refused to negotiate with Israel regarding peace. Then, when the settlement freeze was set to expire, the Palestinians began to call for an extension so that negotiations may begin. This is negotiations in bad faith, if one can even call it that. It is much closer to bad faith discussions to negotiate. Couple this with the very real problem of legitimacy. The Palestinians are 3 years late to their next elections. Under their own rules, neither the Hamas government in Gaza, nor the Fatah government in the West Bank is legitimate. This provides a very easy excuse to delegitimize any agreement come to with Israel. I refer you to the various positions being taken by Egyptian politicians and their own insistence that the Egyptian people have the right to negate the Camp David Accord as this accord was not signed by the representatives of the People of Egypt, but rather by their oppressors. The same can, could, and very likely would be said by the Palestinians regarding any agreement made with Israel under the current situation.

      I understood the intended irony of your using Eban's very famous quote. I find your use to be far from ironic but instead I would say it is poorly applied to this situation. Israel does not have an opportunity to make peace. It has only the offers of surrender. You might ask, surrender to what? I think it a surrender of the very principle of Israel.

      Israel's many detractors are insisting that Israel cut an opportunity out of it's own body, like a rib, and believe ( I think naively) that this rib may be made into a life-partner. Here I describe only the detractors who genuinely want peace and understand the insistance of Israel being a Jewish State. Then there are Hamas, Fatah and the other detractors who do not believe in Israel's legitimacy as a Jewish State and act, not to come to a settlement between partners, but rather for a settlement that ends Israel's purpose, that of being a national home and international representative for Jews. Getting Israel to agree to a peace process with a people who have no dependable representatives and no consensus for peace agreement, is a road towards the second outcome, not the first. Placing the onus on Israel is a dishonest discussion of the circumstances. Stopping the building of settlements was never a precondition in the past and the one time a freeze was enacted, no negotiations materialized. Placing the onus on Israel, believing that Israel's success antagonizes her detractors, also seems to forget that when Israel has conceded to the will of her detractors (pulling out of Lebanon, pulling out of Gaza) Israel did not reverse the tide of antagonism by her detractors. Instead, these enemies (lets be honest in our description) saw these concessions as weakness and chose to continue their attacks, first from southern Lebanon and then from Gaza. Israel's detractors provide absolutely no incentive for Israel to act in any way besides audaciously, preemptively, and in the interests of the Jewish State. She has succeeded when acting in this manner, and only found failure when trying to appease her detractors.

    • 23 January 2012 at 5:00pm
      cigar says: @ P. Ami
      "Israel’s detractors provide absolutely no incentive for Israel to act in any way besides audaciously, preemptively, and in the interests of the Jewish State."

      Damn! So now everybody who dares criticize this politically backward bully state, whose concept of citizenship is still based on race, is going to get pursued and killed? I hope all those Israeli security "consultants" will be willing to offer cut price assistance to "detractors" much less wealthy and cleverly criminal than the Colombian para-militaries.

    • 17 February 2012 at 10:47am
      Greco1 says: @ P. Ami
      You write that the purpose of Israel is to be a national home and representative for Jews. That is the nub of the problem since Balfour and earlier, because it denies the right of existence to the millions of Palestinians in Israel and in the Occupied Territories, and justifies the illegal construction of settlements, the oppression of and discrimination against the Palestinian people which have been the consistent policy of Israel even through the Oslo process.

      To all those in the world who are not Jews, it is not a legitimate purpose but a breach of human rights and international law.

      Fortunately many Jews in and out of Israel, perhaps a majority of them, have understood this. Unfortunately for the prospects of peace, the main Jewish organisations in and out of Israel do not. One can only hope that this changes otherwise the tragedy will never end except through some unthinkable Armageddon at the expense of both peoples.

  • 14 February 2012 at 10:18am
    David Gordon says:
    There are many words that could be used to desribe the Israeli response described in the report in today's Telegraph:

    "Pots and kettles" maybe, or "an eye for an eye" or...?

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