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"Nuclear Scientists as Assassination Targets"

A colonel of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, Mohammad Seraj, left, talks to head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Fereidoun Abbasi, during a conference commemorating Iranian government officials who have been assassinated.
AP Photo

"Nuclear Scientists as Assassination Targets"

Journal Article, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, volume 68, issue 1, pages 61-69

January/ February 2012

Author: William H. Tobey, Senior Fellow, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Managing the Atom



Five scientists and engineers connected with Iranís nuclear program have been killed or injured in recent confirmed or possible assassination attempts. It is unclear who is responsible, but the attacks raise unique policy questions about motives, effectiveness, repercussions, and legal and moral standards. Past assassination plots including a US plan to kidnap or kill a German atomic scientist in World War II suggest that such attempts are products of desperation: A nation tries to kill another countryís nuclear scientists when it sees no military or diplomatic options for addressing a perceived threat of existential proportions. The possible advantages of targeting another countryís nuclear scientists are modest at best, possibly delaying (but not halting) a nuclear weapons program while providing some deniability to the attacking country. The disadvantages are many, including the possibility that assassinations will inspire retaliation, reduce the likelihood of a diplomatic solution, and increase the difficulties international regulators face in monitoring a covert nuclear program. In the abstract, moral and legal strictures also weigh against such assassination efforts. As a practical matter, however, if the existential imperative is present, it will likely trump legal and ethical considerations when a nation contemplates assassinating nuclear scientists.


Since 2007, international media have reported the violent deaths of four scientists and engineers connected with Iranís 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.

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For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.

For Academic Citation:

"Nuclear Scientists as Assassination Targets." Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 68, no. 1 (January/ February 2012): 61-69.

Document Length: 9 pp.

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