In reporting on the recent assassination of Iranian electrical engineering graduate student, Darioush Rezaeinejad, I’ve noted the possibility of the Lillehammer-like mistake by which the Mossad may’ve killed the wrong man. The reason is that at first the news media reported the victim was nuclear physicist, Dariush Rezaei-Ochbolagh. Then it reported the murdered man was Rezaeinejad. Prof. Muhammad Sahimi informs me that the general consensus is the real victim was Rezaeinejad, the PhD candidate and not Rezaei-Ochbolagh, the nuclear physicist.
Yossi Melman, one of Israel’s best known security correspondents all but declares that if they killed Rezaeinejad, they got the wrong man. It wouldn’t be the first time. The most notorious such failure of course, was during the Mossad’s liquidation campaign against the authors of the Munich massacre. They targeted a Moroccan waiter, Ahmed Bouchiki, instead of Ali Hassan Salameh, the chief of operations for Black September. Most of the assassination team was captured and tried for murder, a major blow to the agency’s reputation.
Melman notes a similar possible outcome of the Iranian hit:
…If the murdered man was an engineering student rather than a nuclear scientist, there is no doubt that it was a serious mistake. And if so, it will undermine a tactic that has been viewed as a means of “punishing” Iran and those involved in its nuclear program.
This is because it will likely force the responsible organization to either halt the assassinations entirely or suspend them for a time. The organization will have to conduct investigations to determine what went wrong, and perhaps even fire those responsible for the failure.
…The difference between success and failure in the latest killing is like the difference between the failed Mossad operations in Lillehammer and Amman [the botched assassination of Khaled Meshal] and the successful action attributed to the Mossad in Malta.
Melman apparently hasn’t taken into account that the engineering student, though not directly involved in Iran’s nuclear program, may’ve engaged in research that could be used by that program. Rezaeinejad’s PhD dissertation dealt with the development of electrical switches, one of whose uses would be to detonate a nuclear bomb. But this assassination stands apart from the previous ones in that it previously the Mossad attacked targets with senior academic status. The latest victim is a PhD student. It makes very little sense to target such a figure unless you could argue his work had such merit that it could single-handedly propel the Iranian nuclear program to full weaponization. Given the fact that Rezaeinejad’s dissertation abstract and other research were published and publicly available, that idea seems far-fetched.
All of which takes us back to the Melman suggestion that Mossad got the wrong man. The fact that their names are similar, that they did research in related fields, might infer a grave mistake like the one at Lillehammer. If this is correct, then the fact that the deed is the first assassination carried out during the tenure of the new Mossad director, Tamir Pardo, would be a major mark against him.
I’m gratified to hear the Haaretz journalist report that there are those inside Israel’s intelligence community who argue, as I have, against the efficacy of such an assassination program:
…There has been a heated debate in the inner circles of the intelligence community, and also outside it, about just how effective these assassination campaigns are and whether they achieve their goals.
…If it turns out that the wrong man was killed in Tehran, this argument will heat up again.
At most, they can delay a program, since I’m certain redundancy is built into the Iranian academic program in order to mitigate such personnel losses. And a mistake such as killing the wrong man can quickly evaporate any benefit offered. Besides, killing three or four scientists over a year or two seems like a real hit or miss proposition. How much harm can it really cause to the nuclear program? As Melman writes:
…It seems very doubtful that assassinations – even if they hit the right targets and succeed in sowing fear among the scientists – will prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
Melman closes his story by noting that if Iran’s Supreme Leader wants a bomb, then that’s what he’s eventually going to get. All of which, once again, leads me to question Israel’s “strategy” if you can call it that. What is its goal? And can it achieve it using these methods?
If you want to stop Iran from getting the bomb, you can’t do it with the current tactics whether they include assassination, computer worms, sabotage, etc. The only strategy, I repeat, is negotiation. Negotiation of course is not a panacea since Iran is a wily negotiator, not one to give away its cards easily. But really there is no other choice.