Is Israel assassinating Iran nuclear scientists?

By Yossi Melman, Haaretz Correspondent

Israel is assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists as part of a covert war against the Islamic Republic’s illicit weapons program, the Daily Telegraph on Tuesday quoted Western intelligence analysts as saying.

The British daily said Israel’s Mossad espionage agency was rumored to be behind the death of Ardeshire Hassanpour, a top nuclear scientist at Iran’s Isfahan uranium plant, who died in mysterious circumstances from reported “gas poisoning” in 2007.

Other recent deaths of important figures in the procurement and enrichment process in Iran and Europe have been the result of Israeli “hits”, intended to deprive Tehran of key technical skills at the head of the program, according to the analysts.

The Telegraph also quoted United States intelligence sources as saying Israel is using sabotage, front companies and double agents to disrupt the regime’s illicit weapons project as an alternative to direct military strikes.

Nevertheless, it should be noted that Israel has been carrying out similar covert activities for about a decade, ever since Iran was first suspected of seeking nuclear weapons. The U.S. journalist James Risen has written recently that the CIA and the Mossad have planned together a number of sabotage operations against the Iranian program, including damaging power lines to nuclear sites in order to cause harm to computer systems and equipment.

The Telegraph also quoted Israeli officials as privately acknowledging the new U.S. administration is unlikely to sanction an air attack on Iran’s nuclear installations and that President Barack Obama’s offer to extend a hand of peace to Tehran puts any direct military action beyond reach for now.

As such, the reported goal of Israel’s covert campaign is to delay or interrupt the Iranian research program, without engaging in a direct confrontation that could lead to a wider war.

“Disruption is designed to slow progress on the program, done in such a way that they don’t realize what’s happening. You are never going to stop it,” a former CIA officer on Iran was quoted as saying.

“The goal is delay, delay, delay until you can come up with some other solution or approach,” he added. “We certainly don’t want the current Iranian government to have those weapons. It’s a good policy, short of taking them out militarily, which probably carries unacceptable risks.”

Reva Bhalla, a senior analyst with Stratfor, the U.S. private intelligence company with strong government security connections, was quoted by the paper as saying the strategy was to take out key people.

“With co-operation from the United States, Israeli covert operations have focused both on eliminating key human assets involved in the nuclear programme and in sabotaging the Iranian nuclear supply chain,” she was quoted as saying.

“As US-Israeli relations are bound to come under strain over the Obama administration’s outreach to Iran, and as the political atmosphere grows in complexity, an intensification of Israeli covert activity against Iran is likely to result.”

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