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Israel’s Assassins and Tehran’s Killers (2)

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center, visits the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility. (Photo: Iranian President's Office via The New York Times) They are dying one by one. They are Iran's nuclear scientists, and they are being murdered. Since 2007, five Iranian nuclear scientists have been killed in Iranian territory, many victims dying from magnetic bombs that terrorists had attached to the exterior of their cars. The latest attack took place on January 11, 2012, when Mostafa Ahamdi Roshan, deputy director in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, died without warning in a blast in Tehran shortly after two assailants on a motorcycle placed a bomb on his car.

They are dying one by one.

They are Iran's nuclear scientists, and they are being murdered. Since 2007, five Iranian nuclear scientists have been killed in Iranian territory, many victims dying from magnetic bombs that terrorists had attached to the exterior of their cars.

The latest attack took place on January 11, 2012, when Mostafa Ahamdi Roshan, deputy director in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, died without warning in a blast in Tehran shortly after two assailants on a motorcycle placed a bomb on his car.

According to news reports, confirmed by Truthout, the United States denied that it was to blame for the killing of the 32-year-old Roshan after Tehran said Washington and Israel were responsible for the attack. “I want to categorically deny any United States involvement in any kind of act of violence inside Iran,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters when asked about Iranian allegations over the attack.

National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor added, “The United States had absolutely nothing to do with this. We strongly condemn all acts of violence, including acts of violence like this.”

Former and serving US intelligence officials said that President Barack Obama reacted angrily to the latest killing because, since his election, he had tried to prevent any acceleration in the covert US-Israeli war directed at Iranian nuclear facilities.

The Israeli program, which has been in place for almost a decade, involves not only targeted killings of key Iranian assets, but also disrupting and sabotaging the Iran nuclear technology by infecting Iran's enrichment computers with a US-Israel virus that heavily damaged them and by sabotaging Iran's purchasing network abroad, these sources said.

US opposition to the program initially intensified as President Obama made overtures aimed at thawing decades-old tension between the two countries. Part of his strategy was driven by America's desire to use Iran's roads into Afghanistan to help resupply US-NATO forces there.

But in spite of Obama's desire to relax tensions, Israel continues to carry out killings using its proxies, including an armed group of Iranian dissidents, a group that has high-level political backers in the United States despite being a terrorist organization.

Former senior CIA officials said that Israeli terrorists were members of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), who are paid by Israel to do targeted killings of Iranian nationals.

“The MEK is being used as the assassination arm of Israel's Mossad intelligence service,” said Vince Cannistraro, former CIA chief of counterterrrorism. He said that the MEK is in charge of executing “the motor attacks on Iranian targets chosen by Israel. They go to Israel for training, and Israel pays them.”

The MEK has a shadowy and unsavory history. Founded in the 1970s, the group was stridently anti-shah and allied itself with the dictatorship of Iraq's Saddam Hussein from which it received most of its supplies. Performing security for Saddam, the MEK assisted him in the slaughter of his domestic opponents and the massacre of Iraqi Shias and Kurds in the 1991 uprising.

As the military wing of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the MEK targeted Iranian officials and government facilities in Iran and abroad. The group also attacked and killed Americans in the 1970s. According to one former senior CIA official, the MEK is particularly violent. In France, they did killings in Paris, including six or seven US Army sergeants. He added that the French “were terrified of them.”

Its most spectacular act of terror was the 1991 near-simultaneous attack on 13 countries around the world.

In 2003, the United States listed the NCRI as a terrorist organization and closed its Washington office. US forces in Iraq captured the MEK's weapons and turned the MEK over for investigation of terrorist acts. Since then, the group has been peeling off Iranian nuclear scientists one by one.

When I asked Paul Pillar, a 28-year CIA veteran, whether Israel was killing secondary or tertiary scientists instead of its major ones, he replied, “Israel kills any Iranians it can.”

The range of damage caused by the MEK is not confined to merely killing individuals. On October 12, just before Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was to arrive in Lebanon, a huge blast destroyed an underground site near the town of Khorramabad in western Iran that housed most of Iran's Shehab-3 medium-range missiles capable of reaching Israel and Iraq. A far right-wing Israeli web site, Debka, reported that Iran has suffered a blow” to its nuclear program. The blast killed 18 and wounded several more. The MEK was strongly suspected as the killers, but “There is no conclusive evidence yet,” said Cannistraro. But one former senior US intelligence official said, “Israel did it using the MEK and Kurdish fighters.”

Early History

Mossad has a long history of killing opponents. At first, Israel viewed Palestinians as the chief threat, killing off several Black September assassins involved in the 1972 Munich massacres. In 1986, right-wingers in Israel plotted to kill Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and replace him with someone who would be unacceptable to the West. Mossad's motives were not simply revenge, but a desire to ruin any chance of a Middle East peace. Israel's moderates pointed out that Arafat was the legitimate leader of the Palestinians, and that, while the best of a bad lot, he was an educated man and courageous. The debate finally decided against killing him.

In the early 1980s, the chief threat to Israel's existence was no longer Arafat, but Arab scientists. On June 7, 1981, in “Operation Sphinx,” Israel's fighter planes destroyed the Iraq nuclear complex, Tamuze 17, at Osirak. Israel, then set out to eliminate Arab scientists that could be seen as a threat to Israel's future security. “Israel has been killing Iranian or even Arab nuclear scientists for some time,” said a veteran CIA station chief.

A former senior Department of Defense (DoD) official said, “Israel killed Arab scientists without compunction.”

An incident recounted by former Mossad defector Victor Ostrovsky in his book, “By Way of Deception,” (verified by my interview with him) told how Mossad targeted an Arab nuclear scientist, an Egyptian from Cairo, who assisted Iraq's nuclear program after Osirak.

Mossad and Aman, Israel's military intelligence group, did the planning, but it was Mossad that did the killing. Mossad's chain of reasoning was Byzantine. Mossad officially believes that it kills only people who have Israeli blood on their hands, but the Egyptian had to be killed because he would have had the blood of Israel's children on his hands if he had completed his nuclear project. So why wait?

The scientist was passionate about his work, having said he would pursue this program of building an Arab nuclear weapon even if it cost him his life. When he arrived for a stay in Paris, Mossad approached the scientist directly and tried to recruit him. They got a volley of abuse instead. Then, Mossad sent in a hooker. After the scientist had sex and had gone to sleep, two Mossad agents with a passkey got in and slit his throat.

His blood-soaked body was found by a chambermaid. Nothing had been stolen, no money, no documents. When the hooker heard about the matter, she was shocked. After all, she knew the man had been alive when she'd left him. To protect herself, she went to the French police and reported that when she had arrived, the scientist was angry because someone had approached him offering him money for information. After talking to the police, the hooker told her story to a colleague, who unknowingly passed it to a sayanim, a Mossad volunteer. Such people were all over Paris.

A few weeks later in July of 1982, the hooker was working on the Left Bank when a Mercedes pulled up and the driver asked her to come to his side of the car. As she leaned in to talk, another Mercedes came speeding up and the first driver suddenly pushed the hooker into the oncoming car. She was killed instantly.

Both victims were handled by Mossad in different ways. The hooker's killing was classified as an “operational emergency.” The decision to kill her was made quickly and emanated from an ultra-secret internal system involving a formal “execution list,” that required the personal approval of the Israeli prime minister. The number of names on that list varied considerably. The request for a killing was made by Mossad to the prime minister. (Israeli targets are different from Jewish targets). The prime minister must sign the order, read the execution list and initial each name on it.

No state has any ethics, only its own interests, said a British diplomat, but Israel is just as remorseless a killer as any of its self-designated enemies. Israel's training of the secret police of terrorist countries often gets it into trouble and compromises its stance as the region's Western democracy. For example, until the fall of Iran's shah, Israel trained the Third Department of SAVAK, the shah's dreaded secret police. It sold weapons and intelligence to Serbian dictator Sloban Milosevic. When Israel wanted to obtain the head of an Exocet shipping missile, it agreed to train Chile's secret police to kill its enemies. Mossad likes to keep its techniques to itself, but it trained Chile's assassins and got its missile. In September 1976, I was three blocks away when I heard the blast along Embassy Row in Washington and found a gutted automobile and ambulances when I arrived. The victims were Orlando Letelier, 44, a former Chilean cabinet minister, and his American aide, Ronnie Moffit, 25. Israel wasn't directly responsible – but indirectly it was.

The Rationale

As terrorist/intelligence correspondent for UPI, I wrote a story in January 2003 about how the Bush administration had given permission to Israel to assassinate on US soil. Following phone calls and a trip to Washington, I met with a former Israeli Defense Force member with ties to Israeli intelligence, Gal Luft. We talked a great deal about Israel's assassinations, and Luft soon produced a masterful piece on it, “The Logic of Israel's Targeted Killing,” for The Middle East Quarterly.

In it, Luft said that Israelis “dislike the term 'assassination policy.'” He said that they would rather use another term, “extrajudicial punishment,” “selective targeting” or “long-range hot pursuit,” to describe this particular pillar of their counterterrorism doctrine. He then noted that, since the 1970s, “dozens of terrorists have been assassinated by Israel's security forces, and in the two years of the Aqsa intifada, there have been at least 80 additional cases of Israel gunning down or blowing up Palestinian militants involved in the planning and execution of terror attacks.”

Luft acknowledged that many thought the killings illegal or operationally senseless because “assassinating Palestinian militants only brings harsh retaliatory action, resulting in even more Israeli casualties.” He conceded that it “infringes on the sovereignty of foreign political entities and because it gives the security services discretion to decide on the killing of certain individuals without due process.” But he concluded thus: “the policy does have shortcomings. What is less apparent is the profound cumulative effect of targeted killing on terrorist organizations. Constant elimination of their leaders leaves terrorist organizations in a state of confusion and disarray. Those next in line for succession take a long time to step into their predecessors' shoes. They know that by choosing to take the lead, they add their names to Israel's target list, where life is Hobbesian.”

Pillar recently mounted a brilliant counterargument to Luft in The National Interest, entitled “Deeper into Terrorism.” He said, “With or without confirmation of details of this story, the assassinations are terrorism. (The official US government definition of terrorism for reporting and statistic-keeping purposes is 'premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents.')”

Noting that assassination is immoral, he added, “Terrorism denies the high ground to anyone who uses it, including the use of it in disagreements with Iran. It also hastens the slide through mutually reinforcing hostility into what may be a far more destructive form of violence (i.e., a war). Although the United States has not been involved in the assassinations, the nature of its relationship with Israel, both real and perceived (President Obama commented the other day about staying in 'lockstep' with Israel on Iran), means that Israel's actions suck the United States farther down the slide.”


Assassinations used to be quick, sloppy, haphazard and often relied on luck. This has changed. Targeted killing today is much more sophisticated and requires a lot of preparation and training by different teams. There are those who plan an attack, but do not carry it out. The planning groups do research; rely on field reports, files, communications traffic. They observe the victims' movements, their locales, the places they frequent, traffic patterns. They study logistics, escape routes, access. They provide cover stories, fake passports and false identities. They figure out where the target is likely to stay.

There can be complications. In the 1970s, a Mossad team mistakenly shot a Norwegian waiter, thinking he was Ali Hassan Salemheh, the mastermind of the Munich massacre. Phony identities and false passports can backfire. Six suspected Mossad agents were expelled by Dubai when it was found they were using forged Irish passports. Ireland replied by expelling an Israeli Embassy official.

The Logic of Events

Repeated insults to Iranian sovereignty meant that Tehran would one day begin to stage reprisals for Mossad killings in countries with an Israeli presence. Countries with weak security would be Iran's battlefields of choice for hitting back at Israel.

This finally happened. On February 13, one of Iran's proxies, Hezbollah, launched attacks in New Delhi, Georgia and a site in Bangkok. The attack on Israel's Embassy in New Delhi was well-planned and well-executed. It was possible only by painstaking collection of information regarding the movements and activities of Israeli diplomats, and a capability for undetected clandestine activity in Indian territory for the procurement of explosive material and the fabrication of the improvised explosive device (IED), according to a friend of this reporter, Bahukumbi Raman, a former senior official in India's CIA. In an email with multiple recipients, Raman said the attack coincided with the fourth anniversary of the assassination of a senior leader of the Hezbollah in Damascus and the first anniversary of the death of two Iranian nuclear scientists in Teheran caused by a similar sticky bomb explosion.

Talya Yehoshua-Kioren, wife of the Defense Ministry representative in India, and three others were injured by a sticky bomb planted on her SUV. At almost exactly the same time, a similar device was safely defused in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi due to the detection and neutralization of the IED before it could explode.

Two theories immediately sprang to life. One was that Israel had faked the attacks itself; the other, that the Hezbollah proxies of Iran were the culprits. According to Pillar the second surmise was the correct one. “The wife of an Israeli Embassy official is a high value target,” he told me.

One serving intelligence official said, “The Iranian leadership has worked to reduce its own terrorist arm. Picking New Delhi or Georgia demonstrates Iran's increasing desperation in the face of so many verbal attacks.”

A right-wing Israeli site, Debka, said, “… Iran and Hezbollah are clearly determined to keep on trying until they achieve their objective of killing targeted Israelis.”

The fear is that the vicious circle of Iran-Israeli reprisals will prove destabilizing to the world order. Several sources, including former US diplomats, told me that seeing your enemy as the seat of all evil in the world, being obsessed with the special wickedness of your opponent, blinds people to the logic of events. Seeing a foreign policy predicament as a melodrama with good versus bad freezes history into insoluble dilemmas where any common ground or parallel interests are irrelevant. Assassinations can change history, but they don't necessarily achieve the long-term objectives of the agencies that employ them, said a former DoD official.

The basis of Israel's lavish financing of the MEK is to try to delay any Iranian progress towards a nuclear weapon, even if Iran has not decided to make one, but the fear that Iran might have a weapon calls up a vision of Iran as “a regional marauder that would recklessly throw its weight around the Middle East in damaging ways, according to Pillar. And he pointed out that there is already such a state in the Middle East. It is Israel.

In The National Interest, he said, “This state invades neighboring countries, ruthlessly inflicting destruction on civilian populations, and seizes and colonizes territory through military force. It also uses terrorist group proxies as well as its own agents to conduct assassinations in other countries in the region.” Pillar still holds these views.

In a 2009 article for Middle East Times, this reporter interviewed Pat Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, about Israel's assassinations. He said, “That's what the Israelis would do, what we would expect them to do. They would kill Iranian scientists.”

Asked about the mounting administration disapproval, Clawson said of the killings, “It would be implausible to call off all covert ops.” He added, “If the US pressures Israel, then the Israelis will simply stop talking to us about it.”

Pillar pointed out that unlike Iran, Israel has never signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty or admitted an international inspector to any of its nuclear facilities and, in fact, Israel “has kept its nuclear program completely out of reach of any international scrutiny or arms control regime and does not even acknowledge the program's existence. It is so intent on maintaining its regional nuclear weapons monopoly.”

He added, “The United States needs to distance itself as much as possible from this ugliness, for the sake of adhering to its own principles as well as trying to avoid sliding any further toward catastrophe.” Pillar confirmed these views in an interview.

A former senior US military official summed it up, “Israel is out of step with American policy.”

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