Is Assassination the New Normal?

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UNITED NATIONS - The Tuesday morning car bomb that killed 32-year-old Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, a nuclear scientist at Iran's largest nuclear enrichment facility, marks the fourth such targeted killing of an Iranian scientist in two years, a practice widely believed to have been carried out by either Israel or the United States in order to hamper development of a covert nuclear weapons program; a program Tehran claims is solely for peaceful purposes.

The assassination comes as the latest round of U.S. and European Union sanctions against Iran, which U.S. Deputy Ambassador to the UN Rosemary DiCarlo called "the most comprehensive [Iranian] sanctions ever," are beginning to bite. They are so effective, according to French UN Ambassador Gérard Araud, that permanent Security Council members China and Russia refuse to join their western permanent counterparts - France, the UK and the U.S. - in levying a fifth round of UN sanctions. Doing so, he said, would "touch the nerve," or endanger Moscow and Beijing's strategic interests in the region.

During Security Council consultations on South Sudan the morning of the assassination, the 15-nation body "raised the issue of the latest announcement by Iran of the beginning of enrichment of uranium in Qom which was confirmed by the IAEA on Monday," according to French Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Martin Briens.

He was joined outside Security Council chambers by representatives from Germany, the UK and the U.S. - the E3 + U.S. grouping - to express concern over Tehran's provocative move.

The Western leaders condemned the resumption of enrichment and urged a return to negotiations, but had no comment on the death of the Iranian nuclear scientist. Neither did the Spokesman for the Secretary-General Martin Nesirky when interrogated by Iranian media about the incident in his noon briefing.

Iranian Ambassador Mohammad Khazaee reacted by sending to the Secretary-General and presidents of the Security Council and General Assembly a letter in which he called the murder of Roshan a "blind terrorist attack," carried out using "the same terrorist method in assassinating [other] Iranian nuclear scientists, i.e. attaching a sticky magnetic bomb to the car carrying the scientists and detonating it."

The letter proceeded to cite (but not detail) "firm evidence that certain foreign quarters are behind such assassinations ... Such terrorist acts have been carried out as part of the efforts to disrupt Iran's peaceful nuclear program, under the false assumption that diplomacy alone would not be enough for that purpose."

"The question remains," he concluded, "whether resorting to all unlawful and coercive measures, even terrorist acts, to prevent developing nations from exercising their right to development, including peaceful use of nuclear energy are permissible?"

Former UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Philip Alston spent six years investigating this very question. In his recent article, "The CIA and Targeted Killings Beyond Borders," Professor Alston explicates a list of nuanced, legalistic conclusions on whether assassinations of the sort witnessed in North Tehran on Tuesday are illegal. His general answer is "yes, but..." Indeed, it is a wildly complex question to answer, not least because of the opacity of the actors in question - clandestine agencies like the American CIA and the Israeli Mossad. A more satisfying, though no more comforting, answer to Ambassador Khazaee's question is that such assassinations have come to be acceptable "in practice."

"Alleged targeted killings of several individuals involved with the Iranian nuclear program," Alston said, would seem to fall into the same category as a recent high-profile assassination, which "has been used to suggest that targeted killings in foreign states might be considered routine. The case involved Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a senior Hamas military commander who, according to almost all observers, is very likely to have been killed by the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, in a hotel room in Dubai in January 2010. The incident is said to have involved 27 operatives from a specialist unit called Caesarea, which is alleged to have been responsible for a variety of other targeted killings in a range of Arab countries.

Robert Grenier, a former director of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center subsequently wrote that ‘[t]he simple, cruel truth is that in the end, no one - and here I would include all the governments concerned . . . - is really going to care all that much, or for all that long . . .' about this killing. Since his prediction has more or less been vindicated, the question is whether this incident can be taken as evidence that such killings will continue to pass largely unremarked in the future."

UN dismissiveness of Roshan's death would seem to suggest that the answer to that question is "yes."

(AP Photo: In this photo provided by the semi-official Fars News Agency, people gather around a car as it is removed by a mobile crane in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012. Two assailants on a motorcycle attached magnetic bombs to the car of an Iranian university professor working at a key nuclear facility, killing him and wounding two people on Wednesday, a semiofficial news agency reported.)

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