Santorum: Assassinated Nuclear Scientist Was "Enemy Combatant"

January 12, 2012 3:15 pm ET — Walid Zafar

Rick Santorum

In a strongly worded statement, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton distanced the U.S. from the assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist yesterday — the fourth in the past two years — telling reporters, "I want to categorically deny any United States involvement in any kind of act of violence inside Iran." Equally strong were the comments of the National Security Council, whose spokesman told the New York Times that "the United States had absolutely nothing to do with this."

The killing, likely aimed at disrupting Iran's nuclear program or scuttling proposed P5+1 negotiations, raises tensions in a region that many believe is already close to war.

The Los Angeles Times also condemned the assassination. An editorial stated that "slaughtering scientists on the streets of Tehran isn't the answer. It is as inefficient as it is morally bankrupt, because killing a handful of experts won't erase the country's institutional nuclear knowledge."

But at least one GOP presidential hopeful supports the killing. Speaking to Fox News' Greta Van Susteren last night, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, by far the most hawkish voice in the GOP field, explained that in his view, scientists working on Iran's nuclear program are enemy combatants and therefore legitimate targets.

SANTORUM: I've already made a public statement that any nuclear scientist, particularly any foreign nuclear scientist, who's cooperating with the Iranians in developing a nuclear weapon program would be considered an enemy combatant. And I would be doing what Israel is doing tonight, which is saying nothing. That to me is—

VAN SUSTEREN: Would you have participated in trying to eliminate him?

SANTORUM: I'd be saying nothing right now. This is—

VAN SUSTEREN: Would you have been behind his elimination? There are different ways to go after the program. One is to take out their plants, another is to take out their people who are involved in them.

SANTORUM: I think that this is the most serious threat to the security and stability of the world that we have today, and we should be using all types of methodologies to stop that, including taking out people. And I've said specifically, foreign scientists who come into Iran for the purposes of helping them to develop a nuclear weapons program, these are people who should be treated like enemy combatants.

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Santorum has for some time now been calling for "covert activity" to slow down Iran's nuclear program. In a debate in November he vowed to fund "rebel forces" in the country, and he said as recently as last week that he would go to war to stop the nuclear program. Ironically, although he says he is pleased that the Israelis are staying quiet on the matter, he's publicly stated that the U.S. should announce that it is taking covert actions inside Iran.

The State Department's immediate denial of involvement makes sense given that the killing clearly goes against long-standing U.S. law, which Paul Pillar notes is "embodied in Executive Order 12333." Of course, that law does not apply to Israel. Less clear is what effect the killing will have on actually slowing down or halting Iran's nuclear program. As Iran expert Vali Nasr has explained, our increasingly hardline policy towards Tehran only encourages the regime there to pursue weaponization at a faster and more erratic pace. The Iranians "now see the U.S. policy on Iran -- of toughening sanctions and also, at the United Nations, addressing Iran's human-rights record and support for terrorism -- as one aimed at regime change. That makes attaining nuclear weapons of critical importance to the clerics."

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