Why Does Israel Keep Assassinating Iranian Officials? Because It Works

Iranian forces pray around the coffin of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh during his burial ceremony at Imamzadeh Saleh shrine in northern Tehran on Nov. 30, 2020. HAMED MALEKPOUR/TASNIM NEWS/AFP via Getty Images
Iranian forces pray around the coffin of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh during his burial ceremony at Imamzadeh Saleh shrine in northern Tehran on Nov. 30, 2020. HAMED MALEKPOUR/TASNIM NEWS/AFP via Getty Images

On Sept. 11, 1962, German rocket scientist Heinz Krug disappeared from his office in Munich, never to be seen again. Like several other veterans of the Nazi missile program, Krug was working for the Egyptian government of Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose nation had already fought two wars with the young state of Israel. The backstory is long and complicated—involving Benito Mussolini, Eva Perón, and hidden Nazi gold—but the short version is that the Mossad, Israel’s chief intelligence agency, recruited a Nazi once close to Adolf Hitler to knock Krug off.

But, although it might have been Israel’s most film noir-worthy tale of assassination, it certainly wasn’t its last. This year, in late May and June, seven individuals affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), including two colonels, were killed in separate incidents. Iran, unsurprisingly, has fingered the Mossad in most of the deaths.

Assassination has long been a vital tool in Israel’s arsenal. Just as Israel was emerging as a state in 1948, United Nations negotiator Folke Bernadotte was killed by members of the Lehi gang, which included a man who would later become an Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir. (Bernadotte was promoting alternatives to the U.N. partition plan that Lehi feared might gain traction.)

Shamir was also reportedly involved in Operation Damocles, which had enlisted former Nazi commando Otto Skorzeny to kill Krug and had targeted numerous other Germans eager to continue Hitler’s war on the Jews. Another story, perhaps apocryphal, sites Shamir aboard a private jet spiriting yet more Nazi scientists away from Germany, purportedly to Egypt. In the telling, about halfway into the trip, Shamir opens the door of the jet at several thousand feet and announces to the scientists that they have arrived at their destination.

Yes, the Israelis are good at these covert operations, though Mossad assassins once killed an innocent Moroccan busboy, mistaking him for an infamous terrorist leader. But their skill is not the question. Rather, it is the utility of these extrajudicial killings. Does a foreign policy that employs assassination actually work?

Let’s start in Iran and work backward. Typically, Israel has targeted players in Iran’s illicit nuclear weapons and missile programs, though there have been exceptions (as in 2020, when Israeli assassins, reportedly acting at the request of the U.S. government, took out Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, aka Abu Muhammad al-Masri, a top al Qaeda official and mastermind of the infamous 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa). The most notorious of these operations was the stunning 2020 killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s top nuclear scientist.

Long known to intelligence agencies the world over, Fakhrizadeh was at the heart of Iran’s illicit nuclear program. Not only was he instrumental in the scientific planning of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, he was also reportedly a key element in Iran’s export of nuclear technology and had been spotted by interested parties in North Korea.

Fakhrizadeh’s death was stranger than fiction from the start. Confused reports out of Iran initially blamed a bomb, then assassins, but eventually settled on a remote-controlled machine gun as the instrument of the scientist’s demise.

Interestingly, though Israeli officials usually refuse to comment on alleged targeted killings, someone in the Israeli intelligence firmament chose to share the entire narrative of Fakhrizadeh’s death with the New York Times, down to the most minute details: “[Fakhrizadeh’s] convoy slowed down for a speed bump just before the parked Zamyad”, the Nissan pickup truck on which the remote-controlled machine gun was mounted. “A stray dog began crossing the road. The machine gun fired a burst of bullets, hitting the front of the car below the windshield”. The message to Tehran was clear: We know where you are, we know what you’re doing, and we can eliminate you at a time of our choosing.

The Iranians freaked out; there are no better words to describe their reaction. First, there was muddled narrative—assassins, bombs, satellites. Then there were the rote threats. Iran’s intelligence minister blamed Iranian accomplices within the country’s own armed forces. They begged to differ. A completely fabricated, but widely reported within Iran, confrontation between the IRGC Navy and a U.S. ship in the Gulf of Oman nearly a year later is believed to have been a clumsy attempt by Iran to save face after the humiliating security breaches that allowed the Fakhrizadeh hit.

It is hard to dispute Fakhrizadeh’s importance. He was at once the apex of the Iranian nuclear program and a primary repository of its historical memory—as such, his killing can but be described as a shrewd strategic call on Israel’s part. Replacing Fakhrizadeh will not be easy for the Iranians, and many agree his loss will be a setback for the ongoing Iranian nuclear program. (The United States made a similar call about the killing of Quds Force leader Qassem Suleimani, whose death has been a huge blow to the organization he built.)

The targeting of senior leaders critical to an enemy program is not simply tactical; it makes strategic sense from Israel’s perspective. Even among sophisticated democracies, there can be single points of vulnerability—think J. Robert Oppenheimer’s crucial role in the Manhattan Project—and that weakness goes double and triple for nondemocratic governments and terrorist organizations where power and operational knowledge are concentrated among a select few.

The October 1995 killing of Fathi Shikaki, the founder of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, was devastating to the organization. And the killing months later of Hamas bomb-maker Yahya Ayyash in another sophisticated Israeli operation meant the loss of a man who earned the sobriquet “the engineer” for his unparalleled bomb-making skills. His death deprived Hamas of a key and uniquely talented asset. (In the case of Ayyash, it should be noted, the retaliation was swift and painful: four Hamas bombings that cost dozens of Israeli civilian lives.)

There have been many other such killings—too many to list (though Wikipedia has taken a stab at it). After the Black September terrorist attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics that left 11 Israeli athletes and coaches dead, multiple Israeli government organizations spent years hunting down and eliminating every operative at Munich and other Black September leaders. Only a small handful escaped.

The founder of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, was not as lucky—he was killed in an Israeli missile strike in 2004. His successor, Khaled Meshal, was also targeted for assassination—an attempted poisoning—but in one of Israel’s more prominent fiascos, the perpetrators were caught by the Jordanian government, and Israel was forced to give up the antidote in exchange for their release. The infamous Imad Mughniyeh, responsible for untold numbers of deaths as a key senior member of the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, was killed in Syria in 2008. (Ironically, only an hour before, he was spotted by Israeli cameras with Suleimani and Syrian Gen. Muhammad Suleiman, the latter of whom helmed his country’s nuclear program; the Israelis passed on killing the other two men at the time, a story detailed in a fascinating New Yorker piece.)

In his definitive book on the topic (Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel's Targeted Assassinations), Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman notes that there were 500 such operations between 1948 and 2000 and at least three times as many in the two decades since. In fact, what are now called “targeted killings” have been so successful—though the word feels inapropos—that Israel has increased and broadened the program’s reach and is now looking at eliminating not only key figures in Iran’s nuclear and missile programs but even midlevel officials working on the weapons.

Israel is not alone in embracing targeted killings. The United States professes to abjure the practice of assassination, but in reality, it has adopted the practice, having conducted hundreds of such operations—mostly but not exclusively by drones—in the years since 9/11. No one believes, for example, that the Obama administration was prepared to accept Osama bin Laden’s surrender when it raided his house in Pakistan in 2011.

Targeted killing has become a tool of statecraft because it works, in the sense that it achieves the limited goals prescribed: A key individual, critical to an enemy’s agenda, is gone. It will not end Iran’s nuclear weapons program, but it can slow it down. It will not end Iran’s missile program, but it will cause many Iranians who might have signed up to think twice about the risks. Nor will it end terrorism. But it may stop other killings; indeed, there is evidence that eliminating key individuals has had just such an effect.

Does targeted killing solve major foreign-policy challenges? Rarely. Then again, from Israel’s perspective, diplomacy has also failed to unravel its thorniest problems. Rather, Israel’s remarkable prowess in overt and shadow wars has—perhaps counterintuitively—helped persuade both its neighbors in Egypt and Jordan and its new friends in the Gulf of the wisdom of setting aside old differences.

But is it moral? Israelis insist, sometimes persuasively, that far from the revenge killings some see, these are deaths that prevent further deaths. They also note that terrorists who plot attacks or advance plans such as the Iranian aim to “erase Israel from the global political map” are protected by many Middle Eastern regimes and thus are unlikely to face consequences otherwise. There is no realistic alternative of extradition for Hezbollah or Hamas leaders. Israel (like the United States) also distinguishes itself from states such as Iran and Russia, which use assassination not to diminish national security threats but to eliminate disfavored politicians and critics or punish foreign government policies.

Will it be easy for the “good guys” who use assassination as a tool of statecraft to distinguish themselves from “bad guys” who do the same, albeit for different reasons? Perhaps not. Yet, as long as the benefits continue to outweigh the consequences, the practice is almost certain to continue—indeed, it is likely to proliferate.

Danielle Pletka is a distinguished senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and co-host of the podcast What the Hell is Going On?

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