4-1: On Confront and Conceal

One important question from Chapter 6 of Sanger’s Confront and Conceal that I think needs to be addressed is whether the assassination of Iranian scientists is an effective strategy. Leaving aside the different moral and ethical arguments, do you think it is useful in this situation? Do you think these targeted assassinations are making Iranian scientists more wary about participating in the nuclear program, or that they are discouraging prospective scientists from pursuing a degree in nuclear physics? Sanger suggests on Page 150 that assassinations have “made scientists wonder if every trip to work may be their last.” Or, do you think that these have had the opposite effect, making current workers on the nuclear program more determined, and serving as a recruitment tool? On page 143, Sanger describes how Abbasi was angry and motivated after the failed assassination attempt.

Sanger highlights in Chapter 7 how the US has been very cautious about their actions with regards to Iraq. Bush would not support the dangerous paramilitary activity to mark the concrete that was to go into the bunker at Qom. Obama urged members of the CIA not to interfere with the Iranian elections in any way. In hindsight, both of these decisions were probably correct due to the logistics of the situations. However, do you think that there is a point where it will be necessary for the US to act in Iran? If some form of action is necessary, what sort of action do you think should be attempted first: an overt military action like a bunker bombing, or some sort of covert subtle action aimed at changing the aggressive political ideology of Iran, or some sort of cyber warfare? Obviously a lot of this depends of the logistics of an individual action and its likelihood of success. However, given the US’s shaky history of covert action in Iran, as well as our experience in Iraq, which sort of action should the US seek first with modern Iran?

In a recent article, David Sanger said that Iran was slowing their accumulation of medium-enriched uranium. This would push the timeline of when Iran would reach Netanyahu’s red line back from the early summer to sometime in the fall. In Chapter 7, Sanger notes that there is an internal debate in Iran as to whether they should stop at the brink of obtaining a nuclear weapon and maintain the ability to obtain one very quickly. If Iran does adopt this strategy, what should the US response be? — Alec

6 thoughts on “4-1: On Confront and Conceal

  1. The assassination of leading scientists is not an effective strategy. Even though scientists are killed, their work still exists on paper, in computers, and in their labs. Also, research is often conducted in teams. Therefore killing a few people will not completely obliterate the information. These assassinations will discourage some from participating in nuclear research but will make others more zealous about their work. I don’t know if these dangers would really serve as a “recruitment tool,” but I do think that those working on these projects will become a self-selected group that is completely dedicated to the research.

  2. I believe that the effectiveness of the assassinations should not be immediately dismissed. The Iranian nuclear program is, as Sanger points out, extremely incompetent: “The British, the Indians, the Pakistanis, the South Africans, and many others had mastered the art of enriching uranium in far less time.” Meanwhile, the Iranians had “screwed up many of the most basic steps.” To refer to the first objective of the assassinations–slowing development and hitting Iranian brainpower–I believe that the assassinations actually might be successful. The scientists’ legacy is not what the assassinations are trying to subdue. Instead, it seems as though high-level, intelligent scientists would be most important in a program like Iran’s for their ability to troubleshoot (because their program seems to be plagued with errors). This means that an assassination of a bright scientists could definitely slow their program. I agree that the second objective, that of psychological warfare, is much more nuanced. It might affect different scientists in different ways: some might be discouraged, while others reinvigorated. That being said, just because I respect the potential effectiveness of assassinations does not mean that I condone them; I think that the assassination of scientists is a dangerous precedent for Western countries to set.

  3. While I agree that the “assassination of scientists” is a dangerous precedent to set, I think it conjures images of assassination of biologists working on different species of plants in the amazon, or something like that. I think it is important to differentiate the “scientists” targeted here as opposed to those we may normally think of in the United States. These scientists consciously engage in research that we are now confident is designed to create mass destruction, and are therefore not solely aimed at the advancement of human understanding, as other scientists are. When one engages in an act that could eventually lead to the death of large number of individuals, then one may logically become a target as to prevent such results. If you asked an American scientist working secretly on advancing weapons for the military, they would likely not deny that they are willingly acting as agents of the state, in work that has the potential to harm many. Rationally, they would likely say that treating them as military personnel, would not be out of the realm of possibility. There is no reason why we should not do the same with Iranian scientists. The question then really becomes, can we attack military personnel who are actively advancing abilities to harm the Western world. I think that creates a more interesting question.
    I think another interesting point that this chapter touched upon was toward the end, in regards to Soviet-like containment of Iran’s nuclear abilities. When I read this, it made me think that President Obama may be willing to allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons as long as we can limit their use. If this is the case, was Mr. Sanger saying that President Obama may be the first president not willing to perhaps prevent an attack on Israel as long as it may be contained? I know this is taking it to the extreme, but a policy of containment implies limits that only go as far as
    preventing an attack on the United States. Is it any wonder then, that Israelis are weary of this administration’s commitment to the protection of the State of Israel? Further, a Soviet-like containment strategy hinges heavily on the
    involvement of two rational players. What I believe Mr. Sanger really did not touch on in the three chapters we read was the idea of rationality. Are the leaders of Iran truly rational? Does the concept of mutually assured destruction even hold in a society that chants “Death to America, Death to Israel?” Rationality would hold that sanctions affecting the people would eventually cause the leaders of the nation to change, but this has not been the case. Can we truly keep assuming that we are dealing with rational players, and consequently can we keep building our policy on this idea?

  4. While it is true that several other countries have succeeded in creating nuclear weapons in much shorter time than Iran, I think it is also important to consider the amount of scrutiny that has fallen on Iran’s nuclear program as well as the amount of effort that has gone into preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear capabilities. The other countries on this list, instead of receiving setbacks, have at some point or another received help in the advancement of their nuclear program: the British from the US, the Pakistanis from the British etc. Therefore, while I believe that the assassination of leading scientists does in fact set back Iran’s nuclear program somewhat, I don’t think that it is the leading cause of the incompetence of the Iranian nuclear program. Rather, I think that the majority of the setbacks of the Iranian nuclear program are caused by acts of sabotage targeting key pieces of machinery like those discussed by Sanger.

    On a slightly different note, I think that one of the most important points in this discussion is the distinction between having a nuclear weapon and being able to easily assemble one from existing pieces. Currently, it seems that many countries can skirt international reprimand by being on the verge of developing a nuclear weapon without actually piecing it together. However, having the ability to easily construct a nuclear weapon should be considered essentially equivalent to actually having a functional nuclear weapon. Therefore, I think that the US should respond to an Iran that stops just short of a nuclear weapon in the same way that it would respond to an Iran that had succeeded at creating a nuclear weapon.

  5. Alec, I think you bring up an interesting point about when the US should act in Iran. Israel has already indicated a very clear threshold in the development of Iran’s nuclear capabilities that will lead them to act, Netanyahu’s “red line.” Will the US follow suit in case Israel chooses to intervene when this threshold is crossed? If so, the strategies used will probably be less covert and more damaging to the infrastructure of the nuclear program. The assassinations of scientists and cyber warfare can be effective in retarding the progress of the Iranian nuclear program, but once the development of the technology has reached a certain stage, I imagine that military action would be more effective in actually damaging the technology they have already developed. This would be another interesting question to ask Mr. Sanger, whether he thinks military or covert action is more effective when dealing with the final stages of nuclear weapons development.

  6. What are the long term plans of the United States and other states interested in the disruption of Iran’s nuclear program. How close must Iran get to creating a bomb before open military action is taken? The Franck Report from 1945 spoke of how exceedingly difficult it would be to prevent a nation with the proper resources from acquiring the bomb. Despite the many efforts to delay the program Iran seems to be edging closer and close to being able to create a weapon of mass destruction. If Iran is expected to develop their program to the point where they have not yet built a weapon but had the option to do so at quickly if needed is that acceptable to the United States? Israel has already designated Netanyahu’s “red line.” to be their tipping point. So far the United States has tried to carefully avoid open hostility with Iran over their Nuclear development but is the US prepared to change it’s outlook in a short amount of time?

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