The Long Tradition of Killing Middle Eastern Nuclear Scientists

Wednesday's car bomb in Tehran follows decades of poisonings, mail bombs, and killer prostitutes

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A policeman walks past the car in which Iranian nuclear scientist Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan was / Reuters

The death of an Iranian nuclear scientist in a car bomb blast on Wednesday has prompted a lot of questions: Was Israel (or perhaps the U.S.) behind the blast? Can such assassinations meaningfully slow Iran's progress toward a bomb? Can they be countenanced, morally?

It's worth noting that this is hardly the first time that nuclear and other weapons scientists in the Middle East have blown up, eaten poison, let the wrong prostitute into their hotel room, or otherwise met an unfortunate end. In 2005, Terrence Henry wrote an Atlantic story chronicling the history of misfortune surrounding previous efforts by Iran and Egypt to acquire nuclear weapons capability and advanced missile capability, respectively -- both of which threatened Israel:

Iraq bought the cores for the Osirak reactor from France. Originally they were to be shipped to Iraq in April of 1979, but shortly before their departure an explosion ripped through the warehouse that held them. An organization calling itself the French Ecological Group, which had never been heard of before (and hasn't been heard from since), claimed responsibility. Shipment was delayed for six months while the cores were repaired.

The next year Yahya al-Meshad, an important scientist in Iraq's nuclear program, arrived in France to test fuel for the reactor. The morning he was to return home a maid entered his Paris hotel room and found that he had been stabbed and bludgeoned to death. (The only person known to have seen the scientist the previous night, a prostitute who called herself Marie Express, was killed a few weeks later in a hit-and-run accident. The culprit was never found.) Soon afterward workers at firms supplying parts for the reactor began to receive threatening letters from a mysterious group called the Committee to Safeguard the Islamic Revolution. Bombs went off at the offices of one of the firms, in Italy, and at the home of the company's director-general. Over the next several months two more Iraqi nuclear scientists died in separate poisoning incidents. It is of course unlikely that these events were coincidental; most experts today believe that Mossad--Israel's secret service--was behind each of them, though it has never claimed responsibility.

It wouldn't be the first time Israel turned to sabotage or assassination to deter another country from obtaining nuclear weapons or the missiles to deliver them

In the late 1950s Egypt launched a ballistic-missile program with the help of German scientists, many of whom were former Nazis. In July of 1962 President Gamal Abdel Nasser unveiled two new test missiles at a military parade, bragging that they could hit targets "south of Beirut." Mossad quickly responded with Operation Damocles, an intimidation campaign targeting the German scientists. One scientist was killed in September, two months after the parade, and in the following months the scientists' families were threatened directly. In November several letter bombs addressed to the scientists were sent to the rocket facilities in Egypt; one of them killed five Egyptians. (This part of the campaign was rumored to have been called "post-mortem.") Soon all the German scientists had left Egypt--and its missile program--behind. Without them the program withered.

Henry's story examines the a wide range of covert measures aimed at sabotaging Iran's nuclear program, and their potential for delaying or preventing the development of nuclear weapons, especially when employed in concert. It's still very much worth reading today.