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How Iranian nuclear scientist's assassination will affect Tehran's strategy

In Iran's eyes, the assassination of another Iranian nuclear scientist is proof that the West's carrot-and-stick policy has become solely punitive – giving Tehran little reason to compromise.

By Staff writer / January 13, 2012

Maneuvers: An F-18 Super Hornet jet fighter launched from the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis during exercises in the Gulf in November. Iran has threatened to take action if the US Navy task force returns. It’s currently on patrol in the Arabian Sea.

Benjamin Crossley/U.S. Navy//Reuters/File

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Istanbul, Turkey

With Wednesday’s assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist – widely seen as the latest strike in a broader covert war – and impending sanctions targeting Iran’s oil industry, tensions between the Islamic Republic and the West have escalated to their highest pitch in years.

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The assassins remain unknown, but Iran is vowing to strike back against the US and Israel for the killing of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan.

Iran’s hard-line Kayhan newspaper stated that retaliation is “legal under international law,” and that “assassination of Israeli officials and military members are achievable. One Iranian intelligence official was quoted by the hard-line Rajanews warning that “Iran’s reactions will extend beyond the borders [of Iran] and beyond the region.”

The fevered rhetoric is further proof, analysts say, that what began as a US-led carrot-and-stick policy designed to goad Iran into dropping any aspirations of developing nuclear weapons has turned into a purely punitive approach that leaves Iranian leaders little reason to cooperate.

“They have very few tools in their tool kit right now, and in a sense we have pushed them into a corner with sanctions,” says Anoushiravan Ehteshami, an Iran specialist at Durham University in England.

“So what else do [Iranian leaders] have to lose? If they retaliate, they can change the game a bit, and that’s what they are doing,” says Mr. Ehteshami. “Of course, when you start changing the game a bit, you don’t quite control how much you change. You can unleash all kinds of forces.”

Indeed, the stage appears set for a highly volatile year, as both the United States and Iran prepare for important elections, Tehran faces key decisions on its nuclear program, and an Iranian-American convicted of spying sits on death row in Iran.

Vow to answer 'threats with threats'

When Iran’s supreme religious leader looked out on his nation’s strategic landscape in mid-November, he saw many gathering storm clouds.

Enemies were readying tougher sanctions – perhaps to embargo oil, Iran’s economic lifeblood. They were killing Iranian nuclear scientists. They had sent the computer virus Stuxnet to disrupt Iran’s uranium enrichment. Their agents were reportedly inside Iran, replacing street signs and bricks in buildings with new ones equipped with radiation detectors.

And the United Nations nuclear watchdog had just published details of alleged “systematic” nuclear weapons-related work by Iran through late 2003, and declared of “particular concern” more episodic work as recently as 2009 – prompting fresh global opprobrium.

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