Overview: nuclear scientists as assassination targets – Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

On January 15, 2007, Ardeshire Hassanpour, who had won a military prize for his work as a nuclear physicist at Iran’s Isfahan uranium conversion plant, reportedly died under mysterious circumstances related to “gas poisoning.” While possibly an industrial accident, his death went unreported for six days (Baxter, 2007). On January 12, 2010, physics professor Masoud Ali-Mohammadi was reportedly killed by a remotely controlled bomb wired to a motorbike (Saba, 2010). On November 29, 2010, a similar device also reportedly killed Majid Shariari, and a separate blast wounded Fereydoon Abbasi. Shariari was a nuclear engineer (Time, 2010). Abbasi is now vice president of the Islamic Republic and heads the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (Sanger and Broad, 2011). On July 23, 2011, two gunmen shot and killed Darioush Rezaeinejad; Iranian state media published a report linking the killing to Tehran’s nuclear program (Cole and Schone, 2011), a tie later confirmed by the head of Iran’s nuclear program.

In fact, the killing of nuclear scientists and engineers raises many important—even unique—policy questions: What impels nations to undertake such extreme actions? What are the likely effects on nuclear proliferation programs? What disadvantages or retaliatory responses can be anticipated? Do legal and moral standards have a role in the matter?

The end of World War II, however, did not mean that nation states were no longer interested in killing foreign scientists to address a perceived military threat. As Ian Black and Benny Morris reported in their 1992 book, Israel’s Secret Wars, under “Operation Damocles” in 1962, the Mossad assassinated Heinz Krug, the head of a German company involved in procurements related to Egypt’s missile-development efforts, and attempted to kill Hans Kleiwachter, an electronics expert with experience in Germany’s World War II V-2 rocket program (Black and Morris, 1992). On June 14, 1980, Yahia El-Meshad, who then led Iraq’s nuclear program, was beaten to death in a Paris hotel room; his killer was never identified (Russell, 1981). In 1990, Gerald Bull, a Canadian engineer and expert in long-range artillery who reportedly provided advice to both Iran and Iraq, was shot and killed outside his apartment in Brussels; authorities ruled out robbery as a motive when they found $20,000 left untouched in his pocket (Fried, 1990).

Overview: nuclear scientists as assassination targets – Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists