Nuclear scientists as assassination targets

By William Tobey | January 12, 2012

Since 2007, international media have reported the violent deaths of four scientists and engineers connected with Iran’s nuclear program and an attempt on the life of a fifth. The news reports on such killings are murky, incomplete, and, in some instances, likely inaccurate. The motivations and identity of the persons behind the killings are also obscure, but the fact that they are taking place is undeniable.

On January 15, 2007, Ardeshire Hassanpour, who had won a military prize for his work as a nuclear physicist at Iran’s Isfahan uranium conversion plant, reportedly died under mysterious circumstances related to “gas poisoning.” While possibly an industrial accident, his death went unreported for six days . On January 12, 2010, physics professor Masoud Ali-Mohammadi was reportedly killed by a remotely controlled bomb wired to a motorbike. On November 29, 2010, a similar device also reportedly killed Majid Shariari, and a separate blast wounded Fereydoon Abbasi. Shariari was a nuclear engineer. Abbasi is now vice president of the Islamic Republic and heads the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. On July 23, 2011, two gunmen shot and killed Darioush Rezaeinejad; Iranian state media published a report linking the killing to Tehran’s nuclear program, a tie later confirmed by the head of Iran’s nuclear program.

The appropriateness and legality of targeted killings of terrorists is already a matter of substantial discussion among legal scholars, as controversy over the recent killing of Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki via a US drone attack illustrates. But nuclear scientists — even those in suspected illicit weapons programs — are different from terrorists. In fact, the killing of nuclear scientists and engineers raises many important — even unique — policy questions: What impels nations to undertake such extreme actions? What are the likely effects on nuclear proliferation programs? What disadvantages or retaliatory responses can be anticipated? Do legal and moral standards have a role in the matter?

Like most calculations related to the prevention of nuclear proliferation, the answers to these questions are neither easy to formulate nor categorical. And like many questions related to nuclear proliferation, these have roots stretching back to the dawn of the atomic age.

The Heisenberg uncertainty and beyond. Targeting atomic scientists to retard a potential nuclear weapons program predates the existence of nuclear weapons. Alarmed by the possibility that the giant of German physics, Werner Heisenberg, was working on an atomic bomb for Adolf Hitler, noted theoretical physicist Victor Weisskopf consulted with Hans Bethe, a renowned colleague working in the Manhattan Project, in the autumn of 1942; Weisskopf subsequently corresponded with Robert Oppenheimer, then newly appointed to lead theoretical work for the Manhattan Project. According to Thomas Powers’s account in Heisenberg’s War, Weisskopf wrote, “I believe that by far the best thing to do in this situation would be to organize a kidnapping of Heisenberg in Switzerland.” Over time, within the Manhattan Project and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), Weisskopf’s proposal mutated into a plot to kill Heisenberg — a plot that very nearly came to pass.

Because much, although still not everything, about the plot to assassinate Heisenberg is known, and because it is no longer politically sensitive, the case is worth delving into in some detail, as it adds clarity to more modern cases. One key element in the problem that confronted the Allies during World War II, however, was very different from later episodes: No one could doubt that Heisenberg would greatly advantage any Nazi effort to build an atomic bomb. Powers relates Oppenheimer’s view in 1944 that “the position of Heisenberg in German physics is essentially unique. If we were [undertaking a bomb project] in Germany, we should make desperate efforts to have Heisenberg as a collaborator.” What the Allies could not know were Heisenberg’s intentions, and they famously remain a matter of debate, and even drama, today.

American and British officials initially ignored the suggestion of Weisskopf and Bethe that Heisenberg be kidnapped. But the seed was planted — and it sprouted into kidnapping plans 15 months later.

Physicist Niels Bohr escaped from Nazi-controlled Denmark in September 1943, bearing what the New York Times described — in an early leak of nuclear weapons-related information — as “plans for a new invention involving atomic explosions … of the greatest importance to the Allied war effort.” What Bohr carried was a rough sketch given to him by Heisenberg during their famous 1941 Copenhagen conversation; Bohr took the sketch to be of a weapon, but it was most likely a nuclear reactor.

The full contents of this article are available in the January/February issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and can be found here.

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