The country had become an existential threat to Israel. It was ruled by a megalomaniac who wanted Israel eliminated. And now he wanted a nuclear bomb.
They claimed their nuclear program was purely a civilian program, but Israel knew that was not true. So, they set out to set the program back. Israel undertook a program of assassinating their nuclear scientists. And, when that did not work, they blew up their nuclear facility.
But the country wasn’t Iran. It was Iraq. And remembering that bit of history reveals an interesting pattern.
By 1973, Saddam Hussein had begun Iraq’s nuclear program. Israel responded by establishing a team called New Era whose job was to frustrate Iraq’s plan to acquire nuclear weapons. One of the first strategies they tried was assassinating nuclear scientists who were key to the program.
According to Israeli historian Ronan Bergman, author of Rise and Kill First, a history of Israeli assassinations, their first target was Yehia al-Mashad, an Egyptian nuclear physicist who was hired as a senior scientist in Iraq’s nuclear program. The Mossad began to follow him in early 1980. They followed him for about four months. And then they killed him. They killed him in a French hotel by cracking his head with a large, heavy ashtray.
Three weeks later, the Mossad checked off the second name on its list: Salman Rashid. Rashid was an engineer receiving training in Geneva in the enrichment of uranium. But Switzerland was no safer than France if you were an Iraqi nuclear scientist. The Mossad poisoned him, Bergman reports, with a mysterious toxin.
The next to die was Abd al-Rahman Rasoul. Rasoul was a civil engineer in charge of the construction of buildings for the nuclear project. He felt like he had food poisoning. In a way he did. Three down.
But the assassination program did not stop Saddam. Assassinated scientists were replaced by new scientists, and the program went on. After a year of assassinations, the Mossad knew their plan wasn’t working. Assassinations would have to yield to bombs.
On June 7, 1981, seventy-four Israeli aircraft took off and headed into Iraqi airspace in an illegal act of war. They dropped bomb after bomb on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor, utterly obliterating it.
Three decades later, the pattern would repeat itself. Almost exactly thirty years after the Mossad started tracking Yehia al-Mashad, they would detonate a remote controlled bomb planted on a motorcycle next to the car of Massoud Ali-Mohammadi. The bomb killed the Iranian physicist. Ten Iranians who were working for the Mossad were arrested. One of them, Jamali Fashi, who had a computer and cell phones that tied him both to Mossad in general and to the assassinations specifically, confessed to being recruited and trained by Mossad to assassinate Ali-Mohammadi.
In November 2010, a motorcycle was again used to kill Majid Shahriyari. Motorcycle riders attached a magnetized bomb to his car. The future head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Association, Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, escaped being killed in the same way on the same day when he jumped out of his car.
In the fourth assassination attempt with a motorcycle, the Iranian physicist and nuclear scientist Darioush Rezainejad was killed when two gunmen on motorcycles shot him. Rezainejad played a key role in Iran’s nuclear program. "[A] source in Israel’s intelligence community" told Germany’s Der Spiegal that Mossad was behind the assassination of Rezainejad.
Again employing a motorcycle and a magnetized bomb, this time placed on the roof of the car, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, a scientist involved in purchasing equipment for Iran’s nuclear program, was assassinated on January 11, 2012. Thirteen people found to be working for an Israeli spy ring were arrested.
Major General Hassan Moqqadam, a pioneer in Iranian missile development, would be assassinated in a massive explosion at a military arms depot that houses Iran’s long-range Shahab missiles. That was the second time there had been an explosion at a Shahab missile base. Time Magazine would reveal that a western intelligence source said that Mossad was behind the explosion.
Two senior officials in the Obama administration revealed to NBC news that the assassinations were carried out by the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), an Iranian opposition group that spent many years on America’s terrorist list. They also confirm that the MEK was being financed, armed and trained by the Israeli Mossad and that the assassinations were carried out with the awareness of the Obama administration. The Americans, too, have secretly trained and supported the MEK.
But, as in Iraq before it, assassinations were insufficient to kill the nuclear program. After first sabotaging the Natanz nuclear enrichment site with the cyber viruses Flame and Stuxnet – a joint program of the CIA, NSA and Israel’s secret military unit 8200 – Israel turned to bombing it. In Iraq, too, Israel tried sabotaging the program before bombing the Osirak nuclear reactor. Ronen Bergman reports that on April 6, 1979 operatives from Mossad’s especially clandestine Bayonet unit blew up a hangar in France that was housing machines that were to form a part of the nuclear reactor France was selling to Iraq, setting back the Iraqi nuclear program.
As in Iraq Israel moved from sabotage to bombing, so in Iran Israel would progress through assassination and sabotage to bombing. On July 3, 2020, an explosion obliterated the same Natanz civilian nuclear enrichment facility that was ripped apart by Stuxnet. Early sources placed responsibility on Israel. Subsequent reporting, including reporting by The New York Times, continued to lay the blame on Israel. Making the case against Israel stronger still, former Israeli defense minister Avigdor Liberman, on July 6, publicly implied that the Middle Eastern intelligence source was Mossad chief Yossi Cohen.
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz has said that “Not every incident that transpires in Iran necessarily has something to do with us. . . . All those systems are complex, they have very high safety constraints and I’m not sure they always know how to maintain them.” Leaving aside that Gantz’ statement is short of a denial and leaving aside the humor that Israel is so worried about Iran developing a nuclear weapons program that it doesn’t even have the knowledge or capacity to perform maintenance on, the explosion was not the result of an accident.
The BBC reports that they received an email from an unknown group called the Homeland Cheetahs claiming responsibility for an attack on the Natanz nuclear site two hours earlier. It was only several hours later that Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization announced that there had been an explosion at the Natanz nuclear plant. The group is likely not real, but its email shows that someone knew about the act of sabotage long before it happened, eliminating Gantz’ accident explanation. A Middle Eastern security official cited by The Washington Post said “There was an opportunity, and someone in Israel calculated the risk and took the opportunity.”
The pattern echoes in time. In Iran, Israel has used assassinations of nuclear scientists and sabotage before progressing to bombing nuclear sites. That Israeli signature was to be found written in Iraq first.
An earlier version of this article appeared at Mondoweiss.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.