“So who has been killing all these Iranian nuclear physicists?” I was talking to the spirit of my old friend James Jesus Angleton, the one-time chief of CIA counterintelligence, via my trusted Ouija board. That device had been out of commission for some time, what with all the “natural” disturbances of life in Washington, DC, but it seems to have recovered nicely from the earthquake and the hurricane, and the familiar gravelly voice came through loud and clear.
JJA: Well, if I had to bet, I would put the family fortune on the regime’s security forces.
ML: Not on the Israeli Mossad?
JJA: No, that would be a surprise to me. Those who think that Mossad killed the physicists are simply reasoning from first principles: Israel wants to stop the Iranian nuclear weapons program, these guys were working on Iranian nuclear weapons, therefore the Israelis did it. But for the Israelis to do it requires an amazing ability to operate inside an enemy country, and if in fact they have that ability, they would want to keep it secret until such a time that they wanted to deliver a really major blow. Perhaps in the fullness of time we’ll see Mossad’s capabilities inside Iran, but I do not believe we have seen them yet.
On the other hand, the regime had the means and the opportunity to kill them, and it is very easy to imagine possible motives.
ML: You say “motives,” plural. More than one?
JJA: Oh yes! (He starts to laugh but segues into a short coughing fit. Wherever he is, Mayor Bloomberg is clearly not in charge.)
For starters, in a country like Iran where paranoia is the true national religion and conspiracy the most common form of worship, the physicists might have been suspected of treason. Did they attend international meetings? One or two did, I believe, and the victims may have asked for visas for additional foreign trips. That would have aroused dark suspicions in high places. So that’s one possible motive.
The easiest motive is politics. The country is in constant turmoil; maybe these physicists were friends of the Green Movement or some dissident cleric, or were reading the wrong sort of material online. It seems that the regime was very good at monitoring citizens’ Internet activities, after all.
ML: You’re talking about the so-called “man in the middle” scheme to read e-mails, right?
JJA: Right. And you can be sure that the regime is using other methods to hack into the Internet and identify Iranians who are working against Khamenei and his crowd. After all, they are being trained and assisted by the Chinese, who so far as I can tell from this distance are world champs.
We also know that the regime is capable of targeted assassinations, not just the kind of mass brutality we’ve seen in the broad repression. And once you start down that road, as Don Corleone will tell you, you can’t rest easy unless you can assure the silence of all the assassins.
ML: Two people can keep a secret if one of them is dead, right?
JJA: Well it’s not that bad, whatever Benjamin Franklin thought. There are secrets. It’s a question of reliability. And in Iran, trust is in very short supply, to put it mildly. Take the case of the guy who just confessed to spying for Israel. You know, the kickboxer. Majid Jamali Fashi.
ML: I remember, he confessed to spying for Mossad and was sentenced to death recently. What’s that got to do with the assassination of nuclear scientists?
JJA: Iranian martial arts athletes were used by the security forces, to attack demonstrators in the streets, to kill specific people, and to train the regime thugs. There’s a significant passage in a Wikileaks document from the American Embassy in Baku that gives some “information” on the phenomenon:
The source maintains that one of his acquaintances killed at least six intellectuals and young “pro-democracy activists” before he himself was eliminated.
OK? So if the source is telling the truth, people like Fashi were first used to kill people, and then killed themselves. Perhaps to make sure they didn’t talk. Fashi, in any event, was dangerous to the regime because, even though he was a big Ahmadinejad supporter, he traveled a lot outside the country to compete.
ML: And if the source is truthful, people like Fashi were used to kill “intellectuals” as well as activists. That fits your theory that the physicists were rubbed out by the regime.
JJA: Kind of you to notice.
ML: But isn’t it counterproductive to kill your own nuclear experts?
JJA: It’s a hell of a lot easier to find another nuclear physicist than to replace a compromised program. Iran has a well-educated group of scientists and technicians, a large talent pool. They have also imported lots of foreign nuclear experts, so most likely they don’t worry much about losing one or two of them unless it’s a key figure.
ML: And if they lost a key figure, we might not know about it, don’t you think?
JJA: Agreed. Why would they tell us? The killings thus far haven’t involved the top level personnel…and they have been widely publicized. By the regime itself. Almost as if they were sending a warning to some others…meanwhile, as you say, the top guys are left untouched.
ML: The very people you’d expect Israel to target.
JJA: Yes, I would. It’s the way they have targeted Hamas, for example.
ML: So what do you think about Stuxnet, the sabotage of the Iranian uranium enrichment program?
JJA: That looks more Israeli and/or American to me. And maybe the Germans, too. It was a German computer that was infected with the virus, or worm, after all. They knew more than anyone else about its vulnerabilities.
THERE WAS SOME STATIC COMING OUT OF THE OUIJA BOARD, AND A BIT OF SMOKE.
ML: Do you expect that sort of thing to continue?
JJA: Of course. It’s the smart way. And (LOST SOME WORDS) people on the ground, better to kill the program than the scientists.
And he was gone.