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Is Killing Iranian Nuclear Scientists Terrorism?

19 January 2012

Summary:  Since our side has initiated assassination of Iranian scientists, we have a guest article by Kevin Jon Heller discussing the status of these actions under international law.  That is, under the global regime instituted by the US after WWII, one of the nation’s greatest contributions to the world.  Not that we care if such actions are legal, whether done by directly by the US or by Israel with our knowledge and assistance (however indirect). We’re too locked into a comprehensive framework of lies to see, let alone understand, what we’re doing.  A legal perspective helps to show us how far we have traveled since WWII on our journey into darkness, away from the goals and dreams of the Founders.   This is chapter 14 in a series about our conflict with Iran; at the end are links to other chapters (and additional information).

Contents

  1. Is Killing Iranian Nuclear Scientists Terrorism?
  2. About the author
  3. For more information about assassination
  4. Other posts in this series about our conflict with Iran

(1)  Is Killing Iranian Nuclear Scientists Terrorism?

This is guest post by Kevin Jon Heller, Senior Lecturer at Melbourne Law School.  Originally published at Opinio Juris (discussing international law and international relations), and republished here with his generous permission.

There has been much debate the past couple of days about whether the bomb attacks that have killed at least three Iranian nuclear scientists since 2010 qualify as terrorism.  Glenn Greenwald and Kevin Drum on the left and Andrew Sullivan on the right say “yes”; many of their readers (see Greenwald here) and the editor of Technology Review say “no.”  Those in the “no” camp insist that the attacks were legitimate targeted killings and thus cannot qualify as terrorism.

I have no definitive position on who is responsible for the killings, although the available evidence seems to point to Israel and not, as widely suspected, to the United States.  This Der Spiegel article, for example, says that Israeli intelligence sources have confirmed that the Mossad were responsible for the killing of Darioush Rezaei.  Moreover, Mark Perry published a blockbuster article in Foreign Policy yesterday that claims, based on a series of classified CIA memos, that Mossad agents posed as CIA officers in order to recruit members of the Iranian terrorist group Jundallah, whom Israel believed would be useful in its covert war against the Iranian government.

Let’s assume for sake of argument — and only for the sake of argument — that the killings were carried out solely by the Mossad.  Do those killings qualify as terrorism?

What is terrorism?

The first thing that needs to be said is that it is impossible to answer that question in the abstract.  Despite decades of efforts — and contrary to the rightly-maligned recent decision by the Appeals Chamber of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon — the international community has yet to agree on a general definition of terrorism.  The best we can do, then, is determine whether the killings qualify as terrorism under one or more of the specific anti-terrorism conventions that states have negotiated.  The most relevant one is obvious: the International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings (“Terrorist Bombing Convention”), which currently has 164 States Parties, including both Israel and the United States.  Here is how Article 2 of the Terrorist Bombing Convention defines an act of terrorism:

1. Any person commits an offence within the meaning of this Convention if that person unlawfully and intentionally delivers, places, discharges or detonates an explosive or other lethal device in, into or against a place of public use, a State or government facility, a public transportation system or an infrastructure facility:

(a) With the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury; or

(b) With the intent to cause extensive destruction of such a place, facility or system, where such destruction results in or is likely to result in major economic loss.

There is little question that the killing of the Iranian nuclear scientists satisfies this definition of terrorism.  The attacks involved “explosive devices,” and they were clearly intended to “cause death.”  The attacks also all took place on public streets, which qualify as “place[s] of public use” under Article 1(5) of the Terrorist Bombing Convention.  Article 1(5) defines a place of public use as “those parts of any building, land, street, waterway or other location that are accessible or open to members of the public, whether continuously, periodically or occasionally.”

Notice, by the way, how broadly the Terrorist Bombing Convention defines terrorism.  Many anti-terrorism conventions require the violent act be intended “to intimidate a population, or to compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act.”  The International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism is an example.  Moreover, many national definitions of terrorism, such as the UK’s Terrorism Act 2000 {Wikipedia, actual text} require the violent act be designed to advance “a political, religious or ideological cause.”  The absence of those additional requirements — which many of those who insist that the attacking the scientists is simply targeted killing wrongly believe apply to all definitions of terrorism — indicates just how seriously the international community takes the use of explosive devices as weapons of terror.

About the exception for actions by armed forces

Article 2, however, does not end our inquiry.  Justifiably or not, Article 19(2) of the Terrorist Bombing Convention specifically excludes at least some acts that would otherwise qualify as terrorism when they are committed by the military forces of a state:

2. The activities of armed forces during an armed conflict, as those terms are understood under international humanitarian law, which are governed by that law, are not governed by this Convention, and the activities undertaken by military forces of a State in the exercise of their official duties, inasmuch as they are governed by other rules of international law, are not governed by this Convention.

Article 19(2)’s two clauses address different situations.  The first clause clearly provides that a state’s armed forces can use an explosive device in a public place during an armed conflict without violating the Terrorist Bombing Convention.  (In fact, that is true even if the use of the explosive device would qualify as a war crime.)

The second clause is more complicated — and led to significant debate during the drafting of the Convention.  There is no question that the clause is designed to permit a state’s military forces to use explosive devices in public places even outside of armed conflict (i.e., during peacetime).  The question is whether the Terrorist Bombing Convention excludes any use of an explosive device outside of armed conflict by the military, or only some uses.  Many states, such as the U.S. and Turkey, wanted all peacetime military uses to be excluded, even those that violated international law.  Other states, however, most notably New Zealand and Mexico, insisted that only peacetime military uses that were consistent with international law should be excluded.  In the end, both sides and neither side won: the wording of Article 19(2) — “inasmuch as they are governed by other rules of international law” — was deliberately chosen because it could be interpreted either way.

Fortunately, that ambiguity does not affect our analysis.  The Mossad is not part of Israel’s “military forces,” defined by Article 1(4) of the Terrorist Bombing Convention as “the armed forces of a State which are organized, trained and equipped under its internal law for the primary purpose of national defence or security, and persons acting in support of those armed forces who are under their formal command, control and responsibility.”  The Mossad is a civilian agency that is under the authority of the Prime Minister’s Office; it is not part of Israel’s armed forces.  Article 19(2)’s exclusions, therefore, simply do not apply to the Mossad.

Again, it is not yet clear that the Mossad are responsible for killing the Iranian nuclear scientists.  If they are, though, the fact that they used explosive devices in public places means that the attacks qualify as terrorism under the Terrorist Bombing Convention.

About targeted killings

Finally, let me say a few words about targeted killing.  As noted in the opening paragraph, Greenwald, Drum, and Sullivan’s critics insist that because the bomb attacks are targeted killings, they cannot be considered terrorism.  The easy — and sufficient — response is the one mentioned above: under the Terrorist Bombing Convention, only a state’s armed forces have the right to carry out a targeted killing, whether during armed conflict or during peacetime.  A civilian intelligence service such as the Mossad does not.

It is also worth noting, however, that the targeted killing of the Iranian nuclear scientists would not be legal under either international humanitarian law (during armed conflict) or international human rights law (during peacetime).  During armed conflict, international humanitarian law prohibits the intentional attack of civilians — which these nuclear scientists clearly were — unless they are directly participating in hostilities.  A complete analysis of what it means to directly participate in hostilities is beyond the scope of this post; suffice it to say here that working on a nuclear program that, according to military and scientific experts, is at least two years away from being able to produce a nuclear weapon cannot qualify as direct participation.  Outside of armed conflict — during peacetime — international human rights law imposes even greater restrictions on targeted killing (although, contrary to popular belief, it by no means prohibits it).  Under international human rights law, a targeted killing must be “strictly necessary,” understood to mean that killing the target was the only way to avoid an imminent attack.  For the reasons just mentioned, it is impossible to claim that killing the nuclear scientists was necessary to prevent Iran from launching an imminent nuclear attack on Israel or on another country.

Conclusions

The bottom line: the attacks on the nuclear scientists were not, by any stretch of the imagination, legitimate targeted killings.

(2)  About the author

From his profile at the Melbourne Law School website.

Kevin Jon Heller is currently a Senior Lecturer at Melbourne Law School, where he teaches international criminal law and criminal law.  He holds a JD with distinction from Stanford Law School, an MA with honours in literature from Duke University, and an MA and BA, both with honours, in sociology from the New School for Social Research.  He received his PhD in law from Leiden University in June 2011.

Kevin’s academic writing has appeared in a variety of journals, including the European Journal of International Law, the American Journal of International Law, the Journal of International Criminal Justice, the Harvard International Law Journal, the Michigan Law Review, the Leiden Journal of International Law, the Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, Criminal Law Forum, and the Georgetown International Environmental Law Review.

His book The Nuremberg Military Tribunals and the Origins of International Criminal Law was published by Oxford University Press in June 2011, and Stanford University Press published his edited book (with Markus Dubber) The Handbook of Comparative Criminal Law in February 2011.

He writes at the international-law blog Opinio Juris.

On the practical side, Kevin has been involved in the International Criminal Court’s negotiations over the crime of aggression, served as Human Rights Watch’s external legal advisor on the trial of Saddam Hussein (whose lawyers cited his academic work in their appeals), and consulted with a number of defendants at the ICTY and ICTR.  He served from December 2008 until February 2011 as one of Radovan Karadzic’s formally-appointed legal associates.

See his professional publications here.

(3)  For more information about assassination

  1. James Bond is not just our hero, but the model for our geopolitical strategy, 18 May 2009
  2. Stratfor looks at “The Utility of Assassination”, 26 February 2010
  3. The biggest re-branding exercise in the history of the world, 21 August 2010 — A new image for America
  4. Killing the leaders of our enemy. Is this the fast track to victory – or disaster?, 25 October 2010

(4)  Other posts in this series about our conflict with Iran

  1. Is the War on Terror over (because there are no longer two sides)?, 3 September 2008 — Rumors of covert ops by us against Iran, including aid to terrorists
  2. Iran’s getting the bomb, or so we’re told. Can they fool us twice?, 16 January 2009
  3. Iran will have the bomb in 5 years (again), 2 January 2010 — Forecasts of an Iranian bomb really soon, going back to 1984
  4. About the escalating conflict with Iran (not *yet* open war), 4 January 2012
  5. Have Iran’s leaders vowed to destroy Israel?, 5 January 2012 — No, but it’s established as fact by repetition
  6. What do we know about Iran’s nuclear ambitions?, 6 January 2012 — US intelligence officials are clear:  not as much as the news media implies
  7. What does the IAEA know about Iran’s nuclear program?, 9 January 2012 — Their reports bear little resemblance to reports in the news media
  8. What happens when a nation gets nukes?  Sixty years of history suggests an answer., 10 January 2012
  9. What happens if Iran gets nukes? Not what we’ve been told., 11 January 2012
  10. Status report on the already-hot conflict with Iran – and the looming war, 12 January 2012
  11. Continuity and dysfunctionality in US foreign policy (lessons for our conflict with Iran), 13 January 2012 — Insights about today from Cold War strategist Colin Grey
  12. What the conflict with Iran teaches us about modern State-to-State war, 16 January 2012
  13. Has Iran won a round vs. the US-Israel?, 17 January 2012
  14. Is Killing Iranian Nuclear Scientists Terrorism?, 19 January 2012 — By Kevin Jon Heller (Senior Lecturer at Melbourne Law School)
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47 Comments leave one →
  1. Whirlwind permalink
    19 January 2012 1:45 am

    Its not terrorism when we do it. Simplistic explanation but it could work?

    • Pluto permalink
      19 January 2012 5:44 pm

      I don’t think American Exceptionalism was ever meant to extend that far.

    • 20 January 2012 1:18 am

      Agreed. But in these degenerate times the right to bomb and invade is almost all that remains of American exceptionalism.

  2. 19 January 2012 5:39 am

    Ultimately it is irrelevant whether we use the word “terrorism” or not, the word in of itself has specific modern connotations and has grown in popularity only in the last few decades. At the core of the action though is a serious question about right and wrong, about the most basic principles of a society such as Israel or the United States. Righteousness has always been extolled in Judaism and wickedness has always been condemned.

    The scientists may have been working on a program that is both ill advised and potentially very destabilizing, and God knows the Iranian regime is probably one of the worst in terms of oppression, but as far as we know he was not a terrorist himself nor was he planning any imminent attack. This means that taking his life based on what might happen in the future is nothing other than sheer arrogance and unjustified murder. It is the same sort of calculation made by our most ruthless enemies; groups and individuals we should oppose with integrity, not emulate with immaturity. There may be times when killing is necessary, few would argue against that, but the true mark of righteousness is the understanding that all life is sacred and as such, killing should always be a last resort, and certainly not something you take joy in.

    • 19 January 2012 6:13 am

      It’s fascinating to see how years of propaganda — in an insular society — can result in even well-educated and intelligent Americans saying the most absurd things. Such as …

      “Iranian regime is probably one of the worst in terms of oppression.”

      That is, of course, how Americans are led into wars.

      • Saddam is our ally, a bulwark against fundamentalist jihadist Islam — and Iran. Then he’s a madman demon.
      • Gaddafi is an ally, made reparations for his past and abandoned his nuke programs. A partner in the CIA’s “rendition” programs to hold and “interogate” evildoers. Then’s he’s a gencidal madman, a demon walking the land.

      Only the most minimal evidence — or none at all — is needed to convince Americans that we have always at war with Eastasia. Perhaps we’re too bovine for self-government.

    • 19 January 2012 4:29 pm

      I understand where you are coming from on this, and perhaps that was a simplistic and dramatic statement that mirrors what is too often said by our leaders pushing for war, but the fact remains that Iran consistently ranks as one of the most repressive regimes in the world, in a variety of contexts, from arbitrary arrest, to gender equality, to freedom of expression.

      Even a casual reading of Amnesty International’s report on Iran will bear this out.
      http://www.amnesty.org/en/region/iran/report-2011

      Other sources:

      Press freedom (Iran ranks 175 out of 178)
      http://en.rsf.org/press-freedom-index-2010,1034.html

      Gender equality (125 out of 135)
      http://www3.weforum.org/docs/GGGR11/GGGR11_Rankings-Scores.pdf

      Democracy Index (159 out of 167)
      http://www.eiu.com/public/topical_report.aspx?campaignid=DemocracyIndex2011

      Now, does any of this warrant a war with Iran that will cause an immense amount of human suffering as well as greater geopolitical instability and economic uncertainty? Of course not.
      Just because one recognizes that there are places in the world with serious human rights problems does not mean that one must also believe that warfare is the best or only way to deal with those problems.

    • 19 January 2012 4:47 pm

      I have little tolerance for this level of exaggeration, esp when this kind of thing is used to justify wars (no matter your denial). Let’s look at your statement (bold emaphasis added):

      “Iranian regime is probably one of the worst in terms of oppression.””

      And your reply looks at press freedom, democracy and gender equality? That’s just weird in a world with far more basic freedoms under attack. People gunned downn in the Streets for protesting (eg, US ally Baharain). People arbitrarily imprisoned for years, tortured, assassinated (sound familar?).

      As for the Amnexty International report, have you looked compared it with other nations. For that matter, have you loked at their report about the United States? We’re not Iran, but the gap is not so large as you seem to imagine. And it’s quite kind. A bolder agency could have copied many of the statements from the Iran entry and pasted them in theUS entry. Such as:

      Those arrested were often held for long periods … Some were sentenced to prison terms after unfair trials. Others sentenced after unfair trials in previous years remained in jail.

      … Frequently, they were convicted in the absence of defence lawyers on the basis of “confessions” or other information allegedly obtained under torture in pre-trial detention. Courts accepted such “confessions” as evidence without investigating how they were obtained.

      … Members of the security forces continued to violate human rights with near-total impunity.

      I could continue, but it’s probably hopeless. Jingoism and propaganda, the ironclad prison for the mind.

    • 19 January 2012 5:54 pm

      So your point is that I support war with Iran when I have emphatically stated that I don’t and commented on how unjustified the killing of the Iranian scientist was? If you have already decided that this is my “real opinion” then what is the point of even discussing things further?

      Its not a question of jingoism or propaganda, just a recognition of Iran’s human rights abuses. And yes I have read the report on the United States and it is responsible for many of its own abuses, especially as it relates to terrorism where our political leaders feel they have the legal right to do literally anything they want to anyone so long as they are suspected of terrorist activities.

      Yet the gap between Iran and the US lies in the systematic nature of the abuses. While things in the US might get worse, and unfortunately it seems they will given our current political climate, the reality is that we do have the power to vote for opposition candidates and regular critics of the government do not get sent to jail or get censored. As long as such a large a gap exists, I do think its fair to point out that “Iran is one of the worst”, especially if you do compare it with the other 180 countries in the world. You might think the gap is small enough that we have no right to call Iran a human rights abuser, but there is no need to insult my integrity because we disagree on one aspect of a larger issue. My position on war and assassination seems to be the same as yours, so why are you looking to put me in a category with those you would oppose?

      As you have pointed out many times on this blog, things are bad but we can still affect change if we take back our institutions and get involved in a pro-active way. I do not think the same is true for the people of Iran, for them the struggle is far more dangerous and difficult.

      I don’t have a problem with vigorously opposing both the moral failures of our own country and opposing those of other countries. For me our rights as human beings are a product of our very existence and I will stand against any force that seeks to deny them. The fact that we need not look to far from home to find such forces does not mean they are absent half way across the world.

    • 19 January 2012 6:36 pm

      This has gone far off-topic, but you’re responding to my comment. I do not have time now to respond to this, but for one quick note.

      Me: “this kind of thing is used to justify wars (no matter your denial)”

      You clearly stated your position about the war. I didn’t phrase my reply very well. I meant that you are supporting one of the major justifications for our war with Iran — not just over nukes, but calls for regime change (which appears to be the US goal). And the justification of most of our wars (eg, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya).

      That you agree with the proposition but not the policy-response is nice, but immaterial since the point of these propaganda campaigns is to incite wars. You are singing in the chorus, even if you dislike the play.

      (2) Iran is “among the worst”

      Iran is very oppressive. But your statement is daft — delusional — in a world where regimes exist that oppress people in far worse ways than “gender equality, press freedom, and democracy.” Those are all nice things, but almost immaterial to people tortured, imprisoned, and executed daily by regimes around the world.

      Condemnation of Iran as you do m/b reasonable from Norway, from where must of the world looks like savage-land. But less so for an American.

      As for the “systemic” nature of oppression, you must be kidding. Perhaps a visit to Guantanamo — or your local prison — will open your eyes. We have one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. Almost 1% in prison, 3% in the system in some form — plus the 87 thousand under 18 (also one of the highest rates in the world). These are often convicted on minimal evidence, often with perjured police or forensic testimony — and “plee-bargained” (aka forced) convictions instead of trials.

      Plus our prison system involves officially-allowed prison rape (men, women, minors, documented in other posts on the FM website — citing many offical sources). DA’s even boast that this is part of the punishment.

      This is systemic in every sense of the word, ditto oppressive. And we have not even touched upon the race and class disparities in our criminal “justice” system.

    • 19 January 2012 8:31 pm

      It has definitely gone off topic but I appreciate the more detailed response. I think you make a lot of valid points, especially concerning our gross problems in the criminal justice system. I don’t think they are as nefarious though as what occurs in places like Iran. And there are executions and torture in Iran, they have occurred and have been documented, especially during their last election cycle.

      An in terms of my perspective, I don’t make the condemnation as “an American” because I’m not an official representing the American government, I am a human being who believes in the rights of people not to be subjected to oppression. We can go into other regimes if you want that are more repressive and of course they exist, but one of them North Korea also happens to be the target of warmongers. Does that mean we should remain silent on their human rights situation?

      I would agree though, that If I were singling out Iran and ignoring countries like Egypt which up until last year was an oppressive regime we supported, then I would be guilty of the traditional American vice of using human rights to justify armed conflict and intervention. I just mentioned it in this case because the topic was Iran and I wanted to be clear that while I generally oppose the regime, I do not think we need to be hostile to them, especially not through assassination or supporting terrorist groups like MEK. Furthermore I tend to think human rights issues should be dealt with on the international stage by NGOs such as Amnesty International and by the citizens of the countries themselves who are affected. Generally the involvement by states only tends to compound the issue unless its done in some extremely limited and precise way, something which is very hard to do and has rarely been done successfully if at all.

    • aguest permalink
      19 January 2012 10:36 pm

      The exchange between FM and D.Focil looks typical (how many times have people gone in a back-and-forth “this regime is worse than this one”). Two points:

      a) “[...]our gross problems in the criminal justice system. I don’t think they are as nefarious though as what occurs in places like Iran.”

      Fair enough. What is the gauge? On what basis does one assess the degree of nefariousness of the various systems? “I don’t think” no longer counts as an argument (at least FM has some comparative statistics).

      b) “what occurs in places like Iran.”

      Let us have a look at a place close by — Iraq, which supposedly has benefited from the dedicated, forceful approach to regime change with establishment of democratic institutions that US officials are now touting in the Persian case. The following article shows what is the result of those interventions: “Corruption in Iraq: ‘Your son is being tortured. He will die if you don’t pay’“, The Guardian, 15 January 2012 — “Ghaith Abdul-Ahad reports from Baghdad where families of innocent detainees face extortion from corrupt officials”

    • 20 January 2012 1:15 am

      (a) “What is the gauge?”

      Thank you, that was my point. It’s easy to denounce Iran as “among the worst”, but more difficult to present ANY supporting evidence. This ignorance of relative magnitudes of oppression — ranging from barbaric/horrific (eg, in some African states) to civilized/horrific (USA).

      (b) “Let us have a look at a place close by — Iraq”

      And another in the region (broadly speaking) receiving the benefits of bombing into civilization by the NATO military: Libya. We’ll probably see many more articles like this: “In Libya, a Fundamentalist War against Moderate Islam Takes Shape“, TIME, 18 January 2012 — Excerpt:

    • 20 January 2012 8:09 am

      “Fair enough. What is the gauge? On what basis does one assess the degree of nefariousness of the various systems? “I don’t think” no longer counts as an argument (at least FM has some comparative statistics).”

      The gauge that I provided was a series of indexes compiled by well respected and independent sources. According to their standards and not mine, Iran is among the countries which has the least respect for human rights.

      “It’s easy to denounce Iran as “among the worst”, but more difficult to present ANY supporting evidence. This ignorance of relative magnitudes of oppression — ranging from barbaric/horrific (eg, in some African states) to civilized/horrific (USA).”

      The fact that the next 18 or so regimes in the list of worst offenders may be exponentially more barbaric than Iran does not mean that Iran escapes being part of “the worst”.

      I do thank you for pushing me to consider my words carefully, it shows to run a tight ship here and despite any disagreements I respect that.

    • 20 January 2012 2:57 pm

      “I do thank you for pushing me to consider my words carefully”

      The question is did you learn anything from this exchange?I shut down the comments section for several months both because the comments cheering for war and torture were depressing me, but also (to a lesser degree) because this exercise seems pointless. Even when corrected on basic elements of fact, demolishing the superstructure of thought built on them, nobody changes their mind.

      That’s not the case with your comments, of course. The key points are, IMO:

      (1) You defend a postition (“Iran among the worst”) constructed by US propaganda to support this conflict (or war, I’m not sure what to call it). Also, remaining blind to the repeated and false such accusations made to support our wars (eg, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya) — and their record to date of ill results for those people.

      (2) Your unusual justification for that statement, citing “press freedom, gender equality, and democracy”. This is blindness, willful blindless — focusing on these real but secondary problems, far removed from the horrific opppression existing in much of the world. Execution (even shooting peaceful protestors down in the street), unjust — even indefinite — imprisonment, torture, etc.

      You are unusual in your admirable willingness to stay and defend your views. Most (such as Major Scarlet, long-gone from the FM website) run after rebuttal. But have you gained anything from this exchange? Has anybody reading this gained anything? Or is America at the point where facts and logic can no longer help us?

    • Matt D. permalink
      20 January 2012 1:37 pm

      Personally, I don’t have any interest in gauging which regimes may or may not be the “worst”. It’s all subjective. It’s all an in-group/out-group thing. You’ll always paint those you see as enemies with the blackest brush possible, and those you see as friends with the fairest. Everyone wants to justify themselves. No one wants to admit the potential legitimacy of a deadly foe.

      Here is the one and only valid fact-based no-BS explanation: In order for Iran to remain independent of American influence, it is necessary for the current regime to oppress elements that are directly and indirectly pro-Western. The current consensus of the Iranian people is that they value independence higher than peace and luxury, so they will continue to tolerate this state of affairs.

      The blindingly obvious corrollary to the above fact-based no-BS explanation is that any intervention seeking to overthrow the current regime is NOT doing the Iranian people a favor. Independence is the whole point, and we probably could not feasibly kill enough nationalists to make them see things differently.

    • 20 January 2012 2:11 pm

      Nicely said!

      “any intervention seeking to overthrow the current regime is NOT doing the Iranian people a favor”

      This goes to one of the great anomalies of our interventions in Afghanistan (starting after 1979), Iraq, and Libya. We do so to help, with special concern for women, children, and minorities (eg Christians). Yet those groups are the ones that suffer most from not only the resulting wars but also the fundamentalist Islamic regimes that gain power with our help. We attack secular societies, which educate women and give them a decent role in society — replace them with regimes that oppress them. We never notice this, let along engage in “what went wrong” analysis.” Then repeat on the next state.

      Another example of our broken observation-orientation-decision-action loop. Until that’s fixed we’ll never find success and security.

    • 20 January 2012 7:23 pm

      “The question is did you learn anything from this exchange?I shut down the comments section for several months both because the comments cheering for war and torture were depressing me, but also (to a lesser degree) because this exercise seems pointless.”

      Of course I learned something, If not I wouldn’t continue dialogue when there is disagreement. I still think this is a case of you reading too much into what I admit was an unqualified comment, but let me say that the argument made me look closer at Iran, something which lead me to reading about “A Separation” a new Iranian film that I think showcases the complexity of the country in a way that sometimes gets lost in the debate. Its certainly not anywhere close to a monolithic evil or barbaric state, and I regret that anyone might have interpreted my statements as arguing that it was.

      In terms of people not changing their minds, I have no doubt that hundreds if not thousands have changed their minds by reading this blog and the discussions that follow, even if they never post anything to indicate so.

  3. Whirlwind permalink
    19 January 2012 6:22 am

    Well we are probably sliding into an authoritarian/tolitarian government anyway.

    • 19 January 2012 6:29 am

      We are not “sliding.” That implies overpowered by gravity, some powerful external force, and geography (a slope). It denies the agency of the American people. It denies our humanity (we’re not objects).

      We’re marching to some form of plutocracy. Quietly. Neatly. Voluntarily.

    • david jones permalink
      19 January 2012 11:46 pm

      @FM Yikes! sharp comment.

    • mike j permalink
      20 January 2012 12:56 am

      By the same token, FM, we are not “drifting” into a war with Iran. We are either actively steering for it, or being dragged into it. The evidence presented in this series makes that clear, correct?

    • 20 January 2012 1:07 am

      I don’t want to get hung up on metaphors, but I agree. Our leaders are steering for conflict — perhaps war — and the American people are following, led by a simplistic propaganda campaign (quite similar to that preceeding the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the attack on Libya).

  4. George W permalink
    19 January 2012 9:58 am

    Bravo. Thank you for the article, respect and appreciation for the replies. Let’s hope more people wake up and understand what’s really going on. Most Americans appear not to realize that propaganda is part of their daily life and their willingness, not to say happiness to get dumbed down has reached concerning levels.

  5. 19 January 2012 6:12 pm

    I don’t know. I don’t know if I have the energy to even think about this, but I do understand the point you’re making.

    Just please, if were’re going to be setting of bombs on the streets of Iran, I just want to be spared the sanctimonious “oh we’re such innocent victims” — if Iran starts killing scientists in the USA and Israel. Of course, I know this is hopeless. Really, all I can do is mark the moment in time when ‘we started’ this new escalation.

    • 20 January 2012 1:17 am

      “I know this is hopeless.”

      I know the feeling well. It’s the tangible result of domination — the feeling that resistence is hopeless. We must fight this above all other things.

  6. 19 January 2012 7:24 pm

    I agree that calling this “terrorism” is, if not pointless, incorrect. I think the more appropriate question is whether or not it is murder.

    But regarding whether or not this is terrorism: My analysis of this situation is slightly different than the one above. Above, the author acknowledges the theory that these “scientists” are being assassinated in order to stop, or slow, Iran’s nuclear problem. I’m going to give Mossad more credit than this and assume that the purpose is, in fact, to get Iran to turn even further inward and deny outside (UN) access to nuclear facilities.

    There have been suggestions that the means by which Mossad acquired information about their targets was through such UN investigations of the nuclear program.

    If this is true, Israel is forcing Iran to choose between (1) the systematic killing of a certain group of its people and (2) disallowing international observers’ information-gathering. If it chooses (1), it submits its people to more assassinations, and if it chooses (2), it chooses war.

    Being that—if this is true—the purpose is to “terrorize” Iran’s scientists and scare Iran into protecting them, I wouldn’t hesitate to call this terrorism. But again, using the word isn’t especially helpful here.

    • mike j permalink
      20 January 2012 1:13 am

      How fine do you want to split that hair? The attack was clearly intended to have a chilling effect on the Iranian scientific community and to provoke their government to action: that’s terrorism! You made the case for calling it such, and then failed to provide any support as to why that is either pointless, incorrect, or unhelpful.

    • 20 January 2012 2:57 am

      It makes sense in my head. That’s all that matters.

      My point was that even though one can rightly call this terrorism (as I did), it is insufficient to just call it that (which is why I called using it “pointless” or “incorrect”). The assassinations don’t just have “terror for the sake of terror” in mind—they have much more specific goals.

      I understand that some may find using the term helpful for illustrating the hypocritical nature of U.S. foreign policy (whoop-de-doo), but equating this kind of “terrorism” to bombing shrines, churches, and the London Underground (the terrorism we think of when we see “terrorism”) would be incorrect—an oversimplification.

      Yes, I’m splitting hairs, but given the complexity of the real situation, I think it’s a hair we owe splitting.

    • 20 January 2012 3:26 am

      (1) “I’m splitting hairs … I think it’s a hair we owe splitting.”

      We can only applaud you highly developed moral calculus. When some scientists at UCLA get hit we’ll give their families your contact info. Should this spin into open warfare, as tit-for-tat escalation so often does, we’ll assign you the job of sending notes of condolence to the families of the deceased.

      I believe that the rest of us understand that terrorism is like murder — it has gradations, but that does not mean that it’s not serious, nor that its not a crime.

      (2) “helpful for illustrating the hypocritical nature of U.S. foreign policy”

      Hypocrasy is only a minor aspect of the problem with terrorism. Is it really necessary to explain why?

    • 20 January 2012 4:04 am

      FM:

      (1) You have misunderstood: The distinction I make between these assassinations and run-of-the-mill terrorism (the hair I am splitting) is not a moral distinction. I am making no claim about gravity, criminality, or morality.

      (2) You have again misunderstood: I never said that hypocrisy is, or is not, a problem with terrorism—I merely said that the equation of these assassinations with the term “terrorism” is helpful for illustrating the hypocrisy of U.S. foreign policy.

    • 20 January 2012 4:27 am

      OK, you’ve convinced me. Your opening statement says it all: “It makes sense in my head. That’s all that matters.” Whatever, dude. All we have are your words. We cannot see into your head.

      By the way, I think we all knew this: “assassinations don’t just have ‘terror for the sake of terror’ in mind — they have much more specific goals”. Unlike on TV, terrorists have specific goals than “terror for the sake of terror.” It doesn’t seem support any relevant point.

    • 20 January 2012 4:57 am

      If you can’t understand the difference between the indiscriminate bombings of Shi’a shrines and the targeted assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists, then I guess we might as well stop arguing about it.

    • 20 January 2012 5:14 am

      Read these words v e r y s l o w l y and they might become clear: “I believe that the rest of us understand that terrorism is like murder — it has gradations, but that does not mean that it’s not serious, nor that its not a crime.”

    • mike j permalink
      20 January 2012 5:00 am

      M. James-

      I believe I understand your point well enough. If you would, please provide some examples of terrorist attacks that were only “terror for the sake of terror.” I don’t claim an encyclopedic knowledge of terrorist attacks, but the examples I’m coming up with (apart from some school/ office shooting rampages) had broader strategic goals. -That very much includes attacks on holy sites, transportation, night clubs, etc.

  7. 19 January 2012 10:42 pm

    Repression ? As a woman I’d far far rather be in Iran than Saudi Arabia !

  8. 20 January 2012 6:01 am

    FM: I don’t know how to make it any clearer. The broad “gradation” of what constitutes terrorism is exactly the reason that distinctions need to be made. As the above article acknowledges repeatedly, “terrorism” is a vague term. By extension, to condemn something as “terrorism” is imprecise.

    To use your example—murder—we do not charge everyone who has killed someone with “murder.” There is a gradation. To conflate these assassinations with “terrorism” is like conflating premeditated first-degree murder with contracted first-degree murder, second-degree murder, and criminally negligent manslaughter—classifying them all simply as “murder.”

    Just because they’re all crimes doesn’t make them all the same. Just as we don’t satisfy ourselves with calling criminal negligence simply “murder,” we shouldn’t satisfy ourselves with calling terror-driven assassinations “terrorism.”

    If you still do not see this as a “relevant point,” then you have a much different perception of the situation than I.

    mike j: I don’t mean to disappoint, but I’d rather not go out on this particular tangent. One can foist a broader strategic goal on anything. When those goals are unreasoned, unobtainable, and motivated by “vengeance,” as in the London Underground bombings—that is what I mean by run-of-the-mill, terror-for-terror’s-sake terrorism.

    • 20 January 2012 6:35 am

      If your point is that there gradations to everything, that is obvious to all but children, and I said exactly that several comments ago.

      Your comment about the London bombing is silly. Those doing it had specific goals. What you think of those goals (“unreasoned, unobtainable”) does mean that they are not goals, nor — as you said — make these attacks “terror for terrors sake.”

      We’re done.

    • mike j permalink
      20 January 2012 7:41 am

      M. James-

      If the criteria we use to determine what “pure” terrorism is comes down to the reasonableness and obtainability of the goal, then one could characterize our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as nothing more than terror campaigns. I bet you don’t agree with that (nor do I, FYI).

      Sorry to belabor the point, but I was trying to give you a way to demarcate the differences, and you tap-danced around it. Why? Do you just not want to believe terrorism is something the “good guys” do too?

  9. Pluto permalink
    20 January 2012 1:41 pm

    Terrorism as a weapon of the state would, at best, be something that MIGHT win victories in the short term but would cede the moral high ground to such a degree that it would be fatal in the long run.

    Example:
    The European governments was hit by a rash of terrorist attacks in the 80′s some of which were high-profile. They uniformly followed the rule of law and handled them as a police matter and the terrorists were all captured, dead, or renounced terrorism in a few years. It is true that the citizens of the countries under attack suffered anxiety and bloodshed but they supported their governments and are now much better off for it.

    The US was hit with one very high profile terrorist attack and turned it into a matter of national security and started behaving like terrorists towards our enemies and ourselves. This has led to the useless occupation of two countries and attacks on at least half a dozen others. Every known planner and participant of the original attack is now dead or captured but we feel less safe than ever before and are looking for new countries to attack and ever more repugnant weapons to use against those we suspect of thinking about attacking us.

    Continuing down this road cannot possibly end well, It is time to regain the moral high ground by by restoring the rule of law. We may suffer more civilian casualties in the short run but it is the only way to win the war and perhaps we can finally stop being afraid of what our government will do next.

    • 20 January 2012 2:05 pm

      Nicely said!

      “Continuing down this road cannot possibly end well, It is time to regain the moral high ground by by restoring the rule of law.”

      Changing course now would require a political revolution. The US public has been highly indoctrinated, as usual for people in a long war. The political apparatus has been rebuilt to support and facilitate war.

      “We may suffer more civilian casualties in the short run ”

      Perhaps. 9-11 was horrific, but there were no significant follow-on attacks in the US in the following decade. How long must we remain in fear? I don’t count the “shoe bomber” or the faux attacks created by law enforcement agencies.

  10. aguest permalink
    20 January 2012 2:43 pm

    “There is a gradation. To conflate these assassinations with “terrorism” is like…”

    I do not understand the argument. This FM post quotes a legal analysis that examines whether a specific event (the assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist) can be qualified as terrorism, on the basis of existing, internationally valid legal definitions. It does not matter what you or me or anybody else might subjectively view as terrorism or not; what counts in that analysis is an internationally agreed, legal definition.

    Notice that the legal analysis very explicitly mentioned that the treaties considered do _not_ deal with intent or objectives of terrorist attacks.

    Based on the current international framework, the conclusion was that the event is a case of terrorism.

  11. zahwa permalink
    20 January 2012 10:29 pm

    all along i thought he died of a natural cause

  12. Chuck Lincoln permalink
    23 January 2012 12:50 am

    Yes.

    • 23 January 2012 1:01 am

      I agree. This is really just another chapter of simple answers to simple questions.

      Unfortunately your one-word answer will convince just as many people to change their minds as my 2000 word answer.

  13. Jason permalink
    28 January 2012 12:58 am

    If someone was to today attack a shopping center with a rifle and kill a whole bunch of people (even if he failed to kill anyone) it would not be terrorism as long as it wasn’t politically motivated, if it was then it was terrorism.

    There’s over 100 definitions of Terrorism, my definition (for my B.A course) is ‘Politically motivated violence on civilians, property, state property and or off duty security personnel.’

    I don’t want Iran have nuclear weapons, but to the question of is it Terrorism, well it depends if the U.S and or Israel is trying to send a political message to Tehran or is it just eliminating there ability to conduct nuclear research and development. If it’s both then it’s Terrorism. It’s the motivation that count’s not how the violence is delivered, a suicide bomber is just a means of delivering munitions accurately onto a target.

    • 28 January 2012 2:10 am

      Can you give a citation for that definition of terrorism? I’ve never seen anything like that definition, which includes the State-conducted violence called “war”. Most definitions limit “terrorism” to non-state actors or non-military State agents. Such as the US legal definition in TITLE 22, CHAPTER 38, § 2656f:

      “the term ‘terrorism’ means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents” {source}

  14. NBC: US officials say Israel helps terrorists kill Iran's nuclear scientists permalink
    10 February 2012 2:49 pm

    Israel teams with terror group to kill Iran’s nuclear scientists, U.S. officials tell NBC News“, NBC’s Rock Center with Brian Williams, 9 February 2012 — Excerpt:

    Deadly attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists are being carried out by an Iranian dissident group that is financed, trained and armed by Israel’s secret service, U.S. officials tell NBC News, confirming charges leveled by Iran’s leaders.

    The group, the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, has long been designated as a terrorist group by the United States, accused of killing American servicemen and contractors in the 1970s and supporting the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran before breaking with the Iranian mullahs in 1980.

    The attacks, which have killed five Iranian nuclear scientists since 2007 and may have destroyed a missile research and development site, have been carried out in dramatic fashion, with motorcycle-borne assailants often attaching small magnetic bombs to the exterior of the victims’ cars.

    U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Obama administration is aware of the assassination campaign but has no direct involvement.

    The Iranians have no doubt who is responsible – Israel and the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, known by various acronyms, including MEK, MKO and PMI.

    “The relation is very intricate and close,” said Mohammad Javad Larijani, a senior aide to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, speaking of the MEK and Israel. “They (Israelis) are paying … the Mujahedin. Some of their (MEK) agents … (are) providing Israel with information. And they recruit and also manage logistical support.”

    Moreover, he said, the Mossad, the Israeli secret service, is training MEK members in Israel on the use of motorcycles and small bombs. In one case, he said, Mossad agents built a replica of the home of an Iranian nuclear scientist so that the assassins could familiarize themselves with the layout prior to the attack. …

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