The Real Reason Israel Kills
Iranian Nuclear Scientists?

Robert Wright
The Atlantic
January 11, 2012

With yet another Iranian nuclear scientist freshly assassinated–presumably
by Israel–Jeffrey Goldberg asks a good question: Why is Israel doing this?

Goldberg thinks the most common answers are less than compelling. It's
unlikely, he says, that "Iranian nuclear knowledge is so concentrated in the
minds of a few scientists" that these killings are a major setback to the
nuclear program. And he doubts that the killings will scare much Iranian
talent out of the nuclear science business, since the Iranian government
wouldn't tolerate such an exodus.

But there's a third option that Goldberg doesn't consider: Israel is trying
to start a war with Iran. The more Iranian scientists it kills (and the more
missile testing facilities it blows up), the more likely Iran is to retaliate. And
things have a way of escalating, which would pave the way for military
strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities.

Obviously, Israel could bomb Iran's facilities even without such escalation.
But escalation offers two advantages:

1) Israel gets less blame, because it isn't accused of starting things. Of course,
from Iran's point of view, Israel did start things by assassinating Iranians
and blowing up Iranian stuff. But whether assassinating foreigners
is bad depends on your point of view. In the eyes of the west and especially
the United States, it's terrorism when Iran does it but not when Israel or
America does it.

2) The United States is more likely to get drawn into the war. Israel presumably
prefers that America do the lion's share of the bombing of Iranian nuclear
facilities, since the U.S. has deeper strike capabilities. If Israel launched
strikes on Iran out of the blue, while the U.S. still considered a diplomatic
solution to the nuclear standoff possible, Israel couldn't count on the
U.S. joining in. But America would certainly spring to Israel's defense if
Israel found itself in an escalating war with Iran that Iran was blamed for
starting. And once America was involved in hostilities, it would probably
take the opportunity to set back Iran's nuclear program.

Personally, I don't find the Israeli assassinations as perplexing as
Goldberg seems to. Though bomb-building knowledge per se can't be
extinguished by killing a few scientists, talent is always a scarce
commodity, and removing key talent from any enterprise can set it back
significantly. So I don't think Israel is assassinating scientists just to draw
America into a war. But it wouldn't surprise me if, from Prime Minister
Netanyahu's point of view, that prospect isn't exactly a deterrent.

Robert Wright is a senior editor at The Atlantic and the author, most
recently, of The Evolution of God, a New York Times bestseller and a finalist
for the Pulitzer Prize.
Copyright © 2012 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All Rights Reserved.