A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

50 Years From Operation Damocles to Tehran: Why Israel is Suspected

When yet another Iranian nuclear scientist was assassinated in Tehran today, Iran blamed the US, the UK (Iranians do that for old times' sake), and Israel. Secretary Clinton was quick to deny that the US had any knowledge or involvement, and blaming the Brits is a legacy reflex in Iran. I think most people, though, assume this was an Israeli operation. (Not to mention that they're pretty coy in their non-denials.)

Willy Messerschmitt's Helwan Fighter
That's not just because Middle Easterners, Arabs and Iranians in particular, reflexively blame Israel for everything, including in recent memory shark attacks in the Red Sea and a spy vulture in Saudi Arabia. Nor is it just because Israel's policy of "targeted killings" is well-established when it comes to clear enemies like the Hamas and Hizbullah leaderships. It's because attacking scientists working on military programs has a long history in Israeli secret operations, one that will mark its 50th anniversary this year: from German scientists working on an Egyptian rocket project in the 1960s, through Iraqi nuclear scientists in the 1980s, to the wave of Iranian nuclear scientists today, there seems to be a clear pattern.

Operation Damocles, 1962-63

The first of those, in 1962-63, was exposed when the Swiss arrested a Mossad agent involved; that led to a quarrel between David Ben-Gurion and the legendary (now: his identity was a state secret then) first head of Shin Bet and from 1951 also head of Mossad, Isser Harel, and Harel's resignation. The attacks on the German scientists, reportedly called Operation Damocles, was in response to Egyptian President Nasser's efforts to acquire a missile and aircraft industry using ex-Nazi scientists. (Horrors. It's as if we had hired Wernher von Braun to run our space program. Oh, wait.) Nasser made a lot of belligerent boasts that his missiles would be able to hit any target "south of Beirut," which Israel quite reasonably interpreted as meaning themselves.  Since both rocketry and aircraft manufacture were banned to the Bundeswehr, a lot of German scientists were looking for work. The iconic Willy Messerschmitt himself, in fact, had set up shop in Spain (then of course still under Franco), and agreed to produce a light fighter jet design he developed there as the Helwan HA-300 in Egypt.

Nasser (dark suit),  and Al-Qahir
Those remaining German rocket scientists not already working for the US and Soviet missile programs were recruited by the Egyptians. They designed a V-2 clone (Al-Qahir, usually spelled Kaher in Western reports) and a shorter-range version (Al-Zafir), and produced at least parade mockups of a two-stage version called Al-Ra'id.

As already noted, the assassinations of German scientists were eventually linked directly to Mossad. The Egyptian missile program never got much beyond the V-2 stage. Today most of the prototypes (some of which may have been mockups for military parades) are on display in town squares, traffic roundabouts, or even children's playgrounds.

How much did the Israeli assassination project against German scientists contribute to the failure of Nasser's rocket dreams, and how much was it due to impracticality and lack of funds? We'll have to wait for the Egyptian military to declassify the files. Don't hold your breath.

The Iraqi Nuclear Program

Pretty much all of you will know about Israel's strike on Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981. Less well remembered is the killing of an Egyptian nuclear scientist said to be heading the Iraqi program, Yehia  El-Mashad, in a Paris hotel in 1980. The French  suspected Mossad, but there was no smoking gun.

A decade later, somebody shot "Iraqi supergun" designer Gerald Bull in Brussels in 1990. He'd made plenty of enemies in his day, but most people blamed Mossad.

So the string of assassinated nuclear scientists and other "accidents" in Iran lately leads a lot of observers who aren't  knee-jerk blamers of Israel to see a half-century pattern of sorts.

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