Israel, the United States and Britain have all made clear that they view covert operations as a sensible alternative to conventional military action.
Last year’s Stuxnet computer worm, which damaged computers used in industrial machinery, was widely believed to have been a U.S.-Israeli attack to cripple Iranian nuclear centrifuges.
In a speech at Reuters London offices in 2010, John Sawers, overseas espionage chief of U.S. ally Britain, made an unusually forthright comment on the topic, saying that stopping nuclear proliferation could not be done just by conventional diplomacy.
“We need intelligence-led operations to make it more difficult for countries like Iran to develop nuclear weapons. The longer international efforts delay Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons technology, the more time we create for a political solution to be found.”
But it is not clear that the United States and its European allies believe subversion acts involving violence are prudent.
One former senior European intelligence strategist told Reuters killings were “an unacceptable tactic.”
The scars of the Iraq war, which was launched on information about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs that turned out to be false, run very deep.
A 2011 RAND Corporation study led by former U.S. diplomat James Dobbins said that U.S. military options apart from conventional air strikes included “show-of-force operations in the Persian Gulf, cyberwarfare, and a broad-based air campaign against political and military targets.”
But Dobbins’s report argues that while covert action might slow the Iranian nuclear program it is unlikely to stop it and might have “the unintended consequence of fortifying the regime’s resolve in continuing the nuclear program.”
Israel does not comment directly on covert operations but it is suspected by some of viewing more favorably than its allies covert actions that risk or seek to inflict bloodshed.
Israel says it has no option but to take seriously appeals by Iranian leaders for Israel’s demise, calls that have prompted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to liken them to the Nazis.
Not shedding tears
And to those who object to assassination on moral grounds, Israel’s supporters such as Louis Ren Beres, Professor of International Law at Purdue University, Indiana, say such targeted killings may be justified in self-defense.
“As long as Iran proudly announces its literally genocidal intentions toward Israel, while simultaneously and illegally developing nuclear weapons and infrastructures, Jerusalem has no reasonable choice but to protect itself with the best means available,” he wrote.
Any Israeli pre-emptive measures, he wrote, would perhaps involve “the targeted killing of selected enemy scientists or military figures and substantially expanded cyber-warfare.”
Israel’s intelligence minister Dan Meridor distanced himself from the Jan. 11 killing, saying “I don’t know this subject.”
But at other times Israeli officials have sometimes reacted to news of the periodic mishaps in Iran’s nuclear program by issuing denials or comments that have bordered on the laconic.
“I don’t know who settled the score with the Iranian scientist, but I am definitely not shedding any tears,” Israel’s military spokesman Brigadier-General Yoav Mordechai said on his Facebook page.
In November, days after a mysterious explosion was reported near the city of Isfahan, Meridor himself told Israeli Army Radio: “There are countries who impose economic sanctions and there are countries who act in other ways in dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat.”
Exclusive Analysis’s John Cochrane noted that while there was no evidence of Israeli involvement “the Israelis don’t seem to mind giving the impression that they may have been.”
‘Covert war being waged’
Some Middle East watchers such as former British diplomat Carne Ross thinks the one option that has not been tried seriously is simply talking to Iran about regional security.
Israeli concerns about Iran’s nuclear program were understandable but the Iranians “have a covert war being waged against them...tension is mounting and conflict would be disastrous for everybody, so we have to examine alternatives.”
“If they feel threatened the one way to address this is to talk about it with them,” he said.
But other experts say the mistrust between Iran and Washington is so great that the prospects of contacts are poor.
Economic sanctions may be far more effective than any covert operation, some analysts say.
Prices of staples are soaring, the rial currency has plummeted and inflation is rising rapidly. Working class Iranians are under economic pressure. With the parliamentary elections in March, the first nationwide vote since 2009, the Iranian clerical establishment is worried that Iranians might stay away from the ballot boxes over economic dissatisfaction.
The last Iranian election was followed by eight months of violent protests. The authorities successfully put the uprising down through force, but since then the Arab Spring has shown the vulnerability of governments in the region to public anger fuelled by economic hardship.
Despite the mounting tension, Iranian leaders have to stick to the country’s nuclear course, because otherwise they will risk losing their core hardline supporters, also essential to secure a high turnout in the March vote, analysts say.
“Iranians have always managed to cope with sanctions, but now with talks about oil embargo the authorities feel cornered. That is why they have increased the volume of harsh rhetoric,” said Iranian analyst Khosro Karami.
“They will do anything to prevent street unrest, which will jeopardize the clerical establishment’s existence.”