Nuclear scientist assassinated: Iran blames West

Mostafa Roshan, who was killed yesterday, and the Natanz nuclear site where he worked © Getty Images

A professor who may have been working on Iran’s nuclear programme has been killed by a car bomb. Analysts say the blast is part of a black-ops, spy campaign against the Iranian regime.

Relations between Iran and the West were at crisis point as this week began. In the Persian Gulf, warships from both sides were preparing for a fight. US politicians were talking tough. EU leaders were agreeing to block Iran’s oil trade.

Meanwhile, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who leads Iran’s theocratic government, was responding with defiance. In underground bunkers, scientists for the Islamic Republic were stepping up production of enriched uranium, to be used in a possible future nuclear bomb. The chances of an all out Iranian war were growing by the day.

But if things were bad then, they are worse now. Why? Yesterday morning, it was demonstrated that a war on Iran is in fact already being waged. The weapons? Hidden bombs. The soldiers? Secret agents. The battleground? The leafy suburbs of Tehran, the nation’s capital.

Yesterday’s casualty was Mostafa Roshan, a chemistry professor who was also a director of the Natanz uranium enrichment plant. As he was on his way to work, a motorcyclist is thought to have pulled up alongside his car and quietly placed a small magnetic bomb on the car door. As the bike sped away, the bomb exploded, snapping a flesh-shredding cone of shrapnel into the car’s interior.

The assassination, in which Roshan and at least one other civilian were killed, was the fourth such attack in two years. A nuclear physics professor was blown up in January 2010. In November that year, two other nuclear scientists were targeted by magnetic bombs in exactly the same way as Roshan. Yet another scientist was later killed by gunfire, again from a motorcycle.

Who is behind these attacks? Iran blames Israel, whose military chief, Benny Gantz, has warned that Iran will suffer a surge of ‘unnatural’ events in 2012, which he called a ‘critical year’.

Some western analysts agree. The sophisticated explosives used are typical of covert operations, said one security expert.

And Israeli leaders are terrified of Iran getting hold of a nuclear weapon. Iranian leaders have threatened to wipe Israel off the map, and a nuclear weapon, Israelis fear, might give them the power to do so.

Whatever it takes

If it stopped Iran getting a nuclear missile, would assassinating scientists be justified? Covert operations like this could end up preventing a full-scale war, or even a nuclear strike. Taking a few lives now might end up saving thousands more later. Surely, say policy ‘hawks‘, the ends justify the means?

Nothing justifies murder, others reply. Humans should never be treated as mere ‘means’, however worthy the ends. Better to chance an Iranian nuke than to take even one innocent life.

You Decide

  1. If you had to kill one innocent person in order to save a hundred other innocent people, what would you do? What if it were a thousand? Or a hundred thousand?
  2. Can ends always justify means, or are some things never justified whatever the circumstances. If so, what – and why?


  1. Israeli and US officials have limited tools with which to prevent Iran getting a nuclear missile: diplomacy, sanctions, sabotage, covert operations, air strikes, full invasion. List the pros and cons of each, based on what you know and any further research. Which would you use?
  2. In philosophy, the idea that the ends justify the means is called ‘consequentialism’. Do some further research on this ethical view. Do you find it convincing? What are the problems or advantages?

Some People Say...

“Anyone helping Iran to build a nuclear missile deserves to be killed.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Should I be worrying about this stuff?
Iran’s nuclear programme is certainly worrying if you are an Israeli, or if you are in Saudi Arabia or Iran’s other neighbours. It would also be a very big deal if rising tensions in the region led to full-scale war. All the NATO countries might end up involved if things go seriously bad, but especially the US and UK.
What about the philosophical aspect?
That matters a lot too. There is a big principle at stake: when governments are fighting for something they think is really important (like preventing a terrorist attack or a nuclear strike) is it really ‘anything goes’ or should some rules apply?
And is Israel definitely behind the attacks?
Nothing is certain. Israeli officials have refused to comment.

Word Watch

Ayatollah is a title awarded to high-ranking clerics in the Shia branch of Islam. Iran has been ruled by Ayatollahs since a revolution overthrew the country’s authoritarian monarchy in 1979.
A theocracy is a state which is ruled by religious figures. The word comes from the Ancient Greek theos, meaning ‘god’, just as ‘democracy’ comes from demos, meaning people and ‘autocracy’ comes from autos, meaning ‘one self’. You can also have gerontocracies, plutocracies and gynecocracies – although these are pretty rare.
Enriched uranium
Before it can be used in a nuclear weapon, raw uranium must be ‘enriched’ in machines called centrifuges. This process is hard and time consuming, but Iran is making steady progress.
Shards of metal or glass packed round an explosive in order to make it more deadly.
In politics, those who argue for aggressive policies are often called ‘hawks’, while those who prefer more cautious, passive plans are called ‘doves’.

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