How does assassinating an Iranian nuclear scientist make us safer?

If one nation decides to unilaterally take out another’s citizen what stops the desire for legitimate retribution?

If one nation decides to unilaterally take out another’s citizen what stops the desire for legitimate retribution?

We as human societies have laws and generally agreed-upon practices for a reason. These may not be perfect, and indeed are subject to change at any time, but they are much better than the alternatives. Anarchy. Unrestrained violence. Mass casualties.

We have also developed international laws and protocols for similar reasons. No, we have not always gotten along – the last century’s two world wars are a clear illustration of that – but I would like to think we are getting a little better.

But when we do go to war as a last resort there are rules (these are usually seen as some version of the Geneva Conventions). These agreements cover how to treat prisoners of war, the need to not involve civilians, and the abolition of torture and mistreatment and other issues.

So what about extraterritorial assassination as an act of war?

This is what appears to have just taken place in Iran. One of that country’s leading nuclear scientists, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was killed after his car was apparently ambushed in a district east of Tehran. While no one has claimed responsibility everyone is pointing a finger at Israel. This is not surprising given that Israel has been trying to convince everyone that Iran, and more narrowly Iran’s nuclear program, represents the greatest threat to humanity since Satan himself was tossed out of Heaven.

Whoever killed Mr. Fakhrizadeh, are we ok with this? Are we at a point where one nation can unilaterally decide, extra-legally, who lives and who dies? Are we safer because an Iranian scientist is dead? For its part, Iran has already vowed revenge and it is more than capable of stirring up trouble in the region.

For the sake of argument, let us assume that Israel was indeed behind this killing (on November 30 Iranian media announced that the weapon used in the assassination was made in Israel). In order to justify this act it would have to demonstrate that there was no alternative. In other words, the threat Mr. Fakhrizadeh posed to Israel was so great, so imminent, that killing him was the only way to stop the Iranian beast, whatever that is supposed to be. In my calculus this is doubtful at best (full disclosure: I was a Farsi linguist in SIGINT for 15 years and an Iranian strategic and tactical analyst for 20, although I acknowledge that my expertise on that country has waned of late. I am also NOT a nuclear weapon specialist at all).

Simply stated, the danger posed by Iran has long been overexaggerated.

Please don’t get me wrong: I admit that Iran has been a troublesome nation for four decades and has its fingers in a lot of pies in the region that do not contribute to either peace or security. It is also an open sponsor of terrorist groups such as Hizballah and Hamas.

But to say that the threat coming from Iran, insofar as we are talking about violent extremism, is anywhere near that from Sunni Islamist terrorism, much of it sponsored by Saudi Wahhabist ideology (the Saudis not surprisingly tell everyone that Iran is the problem), is bad analysis. The two are not even close.

Besides, the West had a functioning agreement with Iran on the development of nuclear weapons that was working as well as any of these agreements can before the Trump administration, in a fit of pique to undo anything President Obama had achieved, cancelled it. THAT move, more than anything else, made us less, not more, safe. We were actually talking to Iran: when was the last time we had successful talks with jihadis (please don’t tell me about the ‘peace talks’ in Afghanistan with Taliban terrorists: this is a very, very bad idea and we will see what transpires when those terrorists retake power in that country)?

So, what is next?

Iran has vowed retaliation and we will have to see what form that may take (if any – an earlier assassination of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Qassem Soleimani does not appear to have led to much thus far). Iran can certainly use proxy forces in Iraq to stir up shit. It can leverage Hizballah and/or Hamas to hit back at Israel although it is far from clear to me how much leverage it has over either: in addition, neither group may see it in their own interest to carry out an attack against Israel on Iran’s behalf.

The bottom line is: what gives Israel – assuming it was that state – the right to kill another nation’s official? Is this not precedent setting? Who can now argue that an analogous attack, not necessarily by Iran but, say, by India on Pakistan, is not ok? Where are the ‘rules’ in all this? How does any of this make us ‘safer’?? And, perhaps most strikingly, is this not an act of state-sponsored terrorism?

To return to my opening, we have laws and international protocols for a reason as we all know what happens in their absence. The decision to shirk these conventions comes with a cost. Israel may have just incurred that cost. I suppose we will have to wait and see.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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