NBC: Israel and MEK Responsible for Murdering Iranian Scientists

by Kevin Jon Heller

That’s the conclusion drawn in this blockbuster report — which, precisely because it is a blockbuster that makes Israel and the MEK’s vast number of Democratic and Republican supporters in the U.S. look bad, has been basically ignored in the “liberal” media:

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.


Two senior U.S. officials confirmed for NBC News  the MEK’s role in the assassinations, with one senior official saying, “All your inclinations are correct.” A third official would not confirm or deny the relationship, saying only, “It hasn’t been clearly confirmed yet.”  All the officials denied any U.S. involvement in the assassinations.

As it has in the past, Israel’s Foreign Ministry declined comment. Said a spokesman, “As long as we can’t see all the evidence being claimed by NBC, the Foreign Ministry won’t react to every gossip and report being published worldwide.”

I could ramble on about the implications of the report, particularly how in a rational world it should complicate efforts by the MEK’s U.S. friends to have the MEK de-listed as a terror organization, but I’ll just point readers to Glenn Greenwald’s post yesterday, in which he discusses those implications in detail.  (Yes, dear readers, we can use his name on this blog.  He is only “He Who Must Not Be Named” over at Lawfare.)

I do, however, want to comment on something Daniel Byman, a professor at Georgetown and fellow at Brookings, said about whether Israel’s actions can be considered terrorism.  He told NBC that, “[i]n theory, states cannot be terrorist, but if they hire locals to do assassinations, that would be state sponsorship.”  As I explained in an earlier post, that claim is overbroad.  Under the Terrorist Bombing Convention, “states cannot be terrorist” only insofar as bombings are conducted by the “military forces” of a state; bombings conducted by a civilian intelligence service such as the Mossad are not excluded from the Convention’s definition of terrorism.  So yes, the Mossad’s actions in using MEK to kill the Iranian nuclear scientists qualify as terrorism.


17 Responses

  1. Too bad that Bush is not in office, since he pledged to invade all states sponsoring terrorism.

  2. Dear Kevin,
    your writing more and more resembles a private crusade against Israel and all its supporters as of late, which is at least rather odd to read and makes me want to stop reading this site. Not least cause I don’t get the fervor, it’s kinda scary to be honest. Yes, if Israel was involved in the assassonations (an allegation that is clearly not unlikely to be true, so I won’t doubt it), then the state acted illegally and is responsible under international law. Fine. But will you please tell me Sir, what is the exact analytical value of accusing the state of terrorism? I don’t get it, but maybe you can help me here.
    Sincerely, H. Lahmann

  3. H. Lahmann,

    Numerous respected commentators have insisted that, if the Mossad used individuals in Iran to murder Iranian nuclear scientists, it would not legally qualify as terrorism.  My posts explain why that insistence is incorrect.  Perhaps you can explain to me why there is no analytical value in doing so.

  4. But in the much beloved Nicaragua-US  case the ICJ said that: “As regards El Salvador, the Court considers that in customary international law the provision of arms to the opposition in another State does not constitute an armed attack on that State.” So if it is legal for one state, why is it terrorism for another?

  5. The news report does not provide any indication, other than from Larijani who is after all a very high level Iranian official who can’t be expected to be nonpartisan, of just how extensive the Israeli involvement is.

  6. The Israel bashing is getting tiresome.  Israel is defending itself against religious crackpots who want to “bring it on.”  Does any sane person want the Iranians with nukes?  This passion you have directed at Israel is bothersome inasmuch as you never talk about other nations in the same neighborhood.  How about spending some time on other states in the same neighborhood: Syria – Assad’s regime butchering civilians for months how many – thousands?; no driving rights (or rights at all) for Saudi women; torture by Iranian police against political opposition members; etc.  Really, Kevin, wake up!

  7. Hey Friends!

    The fact that Kevin does not comment on violations of human rights in Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia does not impair his current comment. For God’s sake, Look WHAT is being said, not WHO is saying!

  8. Perhaps what  international law needs in this case is a better-developed ability to distinguish between good and bad intentions. If you feel that Iran has a right to develop nuclear weapons if she wants to, no matter what other circumstances may be, then nothing more can be said. If you feel that an Iran with nuclear weapons is a threat to civilization, then it seems mistaken to depend on the letter of  a terrorism statute that is only a few years old and may not reflect the highest wisdom. 

    And then of course we still aren’t sure of who did what in the bombings.

  9. I agree this is a very important report and further substantiates Iran’s allegations regarding covert attacks by Israel against Iranian civilians. The double standard here in the media and by U.S. and other Western politicians is astounding. Can you imagine what they would be saying, and how much they would be saying, if it was discovered that Iran had trained and financed terrorist attacks on U.S. nuclear scientists in the U.S., or Israeli nuclear scientists in Israel? They would be going positively mental about it and screaming for war.

    I also think this report damages Israel’s credibility in decrying terrorist strikes on Israeli territory by groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. Its essentially like an unclean hands problem in the context of the exercise of equity. 

  10. So now that a wife of an Israeli diplomat in India and a local employee of the Israeli embassy in Georgia have been a target for bombing, suppose for a moment that Iran is responsible for the attacks (we assume the same with respect to Israel as it seems). Would that constitute an act of terrorism? Does the answer to this question depend on whether the perpetrators were members of Iranian armed forces or not? Do you see any difference between an attack on a senior scientist in a military nuclear program and diplomats and their families?

  11. I’d like to reask what Yaniv and Edward did above, because given KJH’s regular responses to comments, I’m surprised he’s been silent on the two cogent points these commenters have raised: 

    (1) If the Nicaragua-US case did not find that providing arms to an NSA was an armed attack, nor did it call this terrorism, why are you KJH comfortable calling Israel’s actions terrorism? 

    (2) Why, KJH, did you fail to mention that the claim of Israeli sponsorship of MeK is only based on Larjani, not the US officials? It’s possible this slipped your mind, but I’m not so sure.

  12. Confused Scholar,

    [1] Nicaragua was a case about aggression, not terrorism.  The fact that providing arms to a rebel group was not considered an armed attack says nothing about whether being complicit in a bombing violates the Terrorist Bombing Convention.  And, of course, the ICJ did not hold in Nicaragua that a state cannot be responsible for an act of aggression committed by a rebel group it supports; on the contrary, it held that the actions of a rebel group are imputable to the state as long as the state had “effective control” over the group.  So if we (wrongly) analogize between Nicaragua and this situation, Yaniv’s comment is still inaccurate.

    [2] The article does not say that the claim of Israeli sponsorship is based only on Larjani.  It says that U.S. officials believe the same thing.  Indeed, the very first sentence of the article makes that clear: “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.”

  13. The second point is simply irrelevant: Israel does not have “effective control” of MEK (it does not appoint its leaders for instance as in the Contras case). As for the first point: If terrorism is not aggression, do you believe that a state that had been attacked by a terrorist group sponsor by another state, cannot enjoy the benefit of article 51? The Iranian’s only choice by your account, is to complain at the UN. Is that so?

  14. Yes, it is irrelevant — because the analogy to Nicaragua is irrelevant.  An act can be terrorism without being aggression; an act can be aggression without being terrorism.  They are completely different legal inquiries.

    And if you think that Article 51 allowed Israel to assassinate the Iranian scientists, we really have nothing left to talk about.

  15. To quote the new story:

    Two senior U.S. officials confirmed for NBC News  the MEK’s role in the assassinations, with one senior official saying, “All your inclinations are correct.” A third official would not confirm or deny the relationship, saying only, “It hasn’t been clearly confirmed yet.”  

    All of the specific and factual information concerning the Israeli role in the assassination comes from Iran.

  16. I think that you have misread my previous comment. I was asking whether Iran can make use of article 51 to justify a military counter-attack on Israel and not the other way around. I suppose from your answer that they can’t, since sponsoring terrorism need not be aggression. Is that so?
    I suppose that the Iranians would have to resort to attacking diplomats and their wives, but besides that who would ever take seriously such a distinction while facing terrorism on its soil?

  17. Is there not a difference between purposely targeting diplomats and their families (non combatants) and nuclear scientists aiding and abetting a rogue regime whose governmental leader thinks global war is a good thing based upon his religious outlook?

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