January 18, 2011

Bombing Iran Less Likely

Over the past three years, yours truly has been greatly alarmed by the prospect that Israel or the United States would bomb Iran's nuclear facilities. I regarded that course of action as imprudent, immoral, and illegal. It seemed to me, and still seems, to be incredibly dangerous and wholly unnecessary. Happily, that prospect has greatly eased over the last several months, with the most important development being the apparent success of a U.S-backed Israeli effort, via a computer virus, to make Iran's centrifuges go haywire. How far that has set back the Iranian program is still disputed, but it seems likely to have set back by several years the prospect of an Iranian bomb.

That marks a striking change. As late as last fall, it was not unreasonable to think that such an attack might be forthcoming in late 2010 or 2011. Jeffrey Goldberg, in a piece in the Atlantic, warned that Israeli would likely launch a strike against Iran were sanctions and diplomatic pressure to fail. Even then, to be sure, there was contrary evidence: George Bush, it was widely known, had vetoed an Israeli attack in 2008, despite being importuned by Dick Cheney to do the deed. And though the columnist David Broder suggested in late 2010 that President Obama would rally the country and ensure re-election by approving an attack on Iran, that prospect seemed quite contrary to the president's innate caution and prudence. If Bush wouldn't approve it, could we really expect that Obama would? Still, the thing could definitely not be ruled out. A weak president might find Israel's importunings irresisble, or impossible to stop.

But the Stuxnet computer virus, if reports of its success are to be credited, constitutes a pretty dramatic game-changer.

Here are parts of the New York Times initial report on the story, "Israeli Test on Worm Called Crucial in Iran Nuclear Delay," January 15, 2011:

Though American and Israeli officials refuse to talk publicly about what goes on at Dimona, the operations there, as well as related efforts in the United States, are among the newest and strongest clues suggesting that the virus was designed as an American-Israeli project to sabotage the Iranian program.

In recent days, the retiring chief of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, Meir Dagan, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton separately announced that they believed Iran’s efforts had been set back by several years. Mrs. Clinton cited American-led sanctions, which have hurt Iran’s ability to buy components and do business around the world.

The gruff Mr. Dagan, whose organization has been accused by Iran of being behind the deaths of several Iranian scientists, told the Israeli Knesset in recent days that Iran had run into technological difficulties that could delay a bomb until 2015. That represented a sharp reversal from Israel’s long-held argument that Iran was on the cusp of success.

The biggest single factor in putting time on the nuclear clock appears to be Stuxnet, the most sophisticated cyberweapon ever deployed.

In interviews over the past three months in the United States and Europe, experts who have picked apart the computer worm describe it as far more complex — and ingenious — than anything they had imagined when it began circulating around the world, unexplained, in mid-2009.

The worm itself now appears to have included two major components. One was designed to send Iran’s nuclear centrifuges spinning wildly out of control. Another seems right out of the movies: The computer program also secretly recorded what normal operations at the nuclear plant looked like, then played those readings back to plant operators, like a pre-recorded security tape in a bank heist, so that it would appear that everything was operating normally while the centrifuges were actually tearing themselves apart. . . .

The attacks were not fully successful: Some parts of Iran’s operations ground to a halt, while others survived, according to the reports of international nuclear inspectors. Nor is it clear the attacks are over: Some experts who have examined the code believe it contains the seeds for yet more versions and assaults.

“It’s like a playbook,” said Ralph Langner, an independent computer security expert in Hamburg, Germany, who was among the first to decode Stuxnet. “Anyone who looks at it carefully can build something like it.” Mr. Langner is among the experts who expressed fear that the attack had legitimized a new form of industrial warfare, one to which the United States is also highly vulnerable. . . .

The project’s political origins can be found in the last months of the Bush administration. In January 2009, The New York Times reported that Mr. Bush authorized a covert program to undermine the electrical and computer systems around Natanz, Iran’s major enrichment center. President Obama, first briefed on the program even before taking office, sped it up, according to officials familiar with the administration’s Iran strategy. So did the Israelis, other officials said. Israel has long been seeking a way to cripple Iran’s capability without triggering the opprobrium, or the war, that might follow an overt military strike of the kind they conducted against nuclear facilities in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007.

Two years ago, when Israel still thought its only solution was a military one and approached Mr. Bush for the bunker-busting bombs and other equipment it believed it would need for an air attack, its officials told the White House that such a strike would set back Iran’s programs by roughly three years. Its request was turned down.

Now, Mr. Dagan’s statement suggests that Israel believes it has gained at least that much time, without mounting an attack. So does the Obama administration.
A few other developments of the last several months may also be noted here.

The Wikileaks disclosures showed that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia had been hot for the United States to take action against Iran's nuclear program and "cut off the head of the snake" (though the lower levels of the Saudi foreign policy establishment, as elsewhere in the Arab world, were much more cautious). Such importunings from Saudi and other Arab leaders had been previously reported, but the Wikileaks disclosures put the official seal on the matter. (Too bad that members of the U.S. military and intelligence apparatus are forbidden from reading them, because they're classified!)

Two Iranian nuclear scientists have been assassinated--in all probability by Israeli agents.

Serious rifts have appeared in Iran itself. According to this piece in the Atlantic, it is Ahmadinejad, the reputed crazy man, who has favored making a deal with the West over the nuclear question, and who has emerged in Iran's internal battles as both favoring greater recognition of human rights and emphasizing Iran's Persian (rather than Islamic) heritage.
That is the surprising impression one gets reading the latest WikiLeaks revelations, which portray Ahmadinejad as open to making concessions on Iran's nuclear program and far more accommodating to Iranians' demands for greater freedoms than anyone would have thought. Two episodes in particular deserve special scrutiny not only for what they reveal about Ahmadinejad but for the light they shed on the question of who really calls the shots in Iran.

In October 2009, Ahamdinejad's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, worked out a compromise with world power representatives in Geneva on Iran's controversial nuclear program. But the deal, in which Iran agreed to ship nearly its entire stockpile of low enriched uranium to Russia and France for processing, collapsed when it failed to garner enough support in Iran's parliament, the Majles.

According to a U.S. diplomatic cable recently published by WikiLeaks, Ahmadinejad, despite all of his tough talk and heated speeches about Iran's right to a nuclear program, fervently supported the Geneva arrangement, which would have left Iran without enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon. But, inside the often opaque Tehran government, he was thwarted from pursuing the deal by politicians on both the right and the left who saw the agreement as a "defeat" for the country and who viewed Ahmadinejad as, in the words of Ali Larijani, the conservative Speaker of the Majles, "fooled by the Westerners."

Despite the opposition from all sides, Ahmadinajed, we have learned, continued to tout the nuclear deal as a positive and necessary step for Iran. In February 2010, he reiterated his support for the Geneva agreement saying, "If we allow them to take [Iran's enriched uranium for processing], there is no problem." By June, long after all parties in the Geneva agreement had given up on the negotiations and the Iranian government had publicly taken a much firmer line on its nuclear program, Ahmadinejad was still trying to revive the deal. "The Tehran declaration is still alive and can play a role in international relations even if the arrogant (Western) powers are upset and angry," he declared. Even as late as September, Ahmadinejad was still promising that "there is a good chance that talks will resume in the near future," despite statements to the contrary from Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. . . .
It might seem shocking to both casual and dedicated Iran-watcher that the bombastic Ahmadinejad could, behind Tehran's closed doors, be playing the reformer. After all, this was the man who, in 2005, generated wide outrage in the West for suggesting that Israel should be "wiped from the map." But even that case said as much about our limited understanding of him and his context as it did about Ahmadinejad himself. The expression "wipe from the map" means "destroy" in English but not in Farsi. In Farsi, it means not that Israel should be eliminated but that the existing political borders should literally be wiped from a literal map and replaced with those of historic Palestine. That's still not something likely to win him cheers in U.S. policy circles, but the distinction, which has been largely lost from the West's understanding of the Iranian president, is important.
Iran's position has been weakened considerably, as this report from Frontline makes clear:

Sanctions alone have often proved ineffective in toppling a government. After all, Fidel Castro has endured 50 years of unilateral U.S. sanctions. However, in concert with other efforts, and given the U.N. and E.U. endorsements of sanctions against Iran, the blockades are having a discernible impact. As can be expected, ordinary Iranians are the primary casualties. Denied food and merchandise imports, raw materials needed for production and manufacturing, they suffer skyrocketing inflation and unemployment that has left the economy in shambles. The infrastructure, too, is deteriorating. Resources are seriously depleted, and the price of gasoline has risen as countries obeying sanctions no longer export it to Iran. Even Iran-friendly Turkey has increased its price. Planes built nearly 40 years ago cannot be adequately serviced without access to replacement parts, leaving Iran with a reputation as one of the most dangerous places to fly. Just last week a plane crashed in northern Iran, killing at least 78 and spurring protests against the sanctions, but also underscoring the impact of the government's resistance to compromise. Hospitals and medical treatment suffer from lack of equipment and medicine, preventing Iranians from receiving proper everyday treatment and even life-saving medical care.

While a profound lack of humanity exists in imposing sanctions at the sacrifice of the lives of innocent people, they are nevertheless weakening the foundation of the current regime. The government has tried unsuccessfully to hamper sanctions by subsidizing; unfortunately, purchasing materials through secondary or tertiary sources has proved very expensive, as they are often paying three-fold for items once acquired from the West. Even Russia and China have begun to cut back on their oil purchases.

Iran is also losing its nuclear battle. Despite rhetoric from Ahmadinejad proclaiming the peaceful aim of the country's nuclear program, inherent risks come with enrichment of uranium, and there is no guarantee of Iran's intentions. And as reported by the New York Times, the program appears to have been undermined by a complex system virus -- Stuxnet, introduced by Israel in cooperation with the United States, has set Iran's nuclear ambitions back years, although it has failed to disable the program completely. And there may be more to come, as the virus may contain embedded codes set to strike at a later date. Iran has thus been outmaneuvered in its nuclear game. And the government may not be capable of fulfilling the pronouncement General Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, made in a Frontline interview: "You will not find a single instance in which a country has inflicted harm on us and we have left it without a response. So if the United States makes such a mistake, they should know that we will definitely respond. And we don't make idle threats."

The arguably ingenious approach taken by Israel outsmarted those who predicted its strategy would come in the form of military strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities. Stuxnet had the same impact without dropping a single bomb. So how is Iran left to respond to a disabling virus? Then there are the assassination of a key nuclear scientist and an attempt on the life of another. Iran is charging Israel with responsibility for both. But aside from an inconsequential lawsuit, does Iran have the capacity to respond either in kind or otherwise?

Perhaps retaliation will come through other branches, such as Lebanon's Hezbollah, which recently withdrew from the country's cabinet, resulting in the collapse of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri's coalition government. But can an assault by Israel's enemy based in southern Lebanon effectively challenge the force that, in 2006, decimated their efforts even as they lobbed missiles over the border? While Hassan Nasrallah may have visions of grandiosity, if he is Iran's arm against Israel, the response will be weak and no doubt short-lived. And it won't reverse the damage done to Iran's crippled nuclear program.

Internal threats further weaken Iran's position. While the strong-arm tactics of the government effectively stifled the Green Movement, there is no rescinding the revolt that took place following the 2009 presidential election. It's doubtful that minds have changed regarding the state of the government under the current Supreme Leader, and the potential for a resurgence of the insurrection always exists. Even with a rash of imprisonments and accompanying harsh sentences, it is likely impossible to squelch the reform movement entirely. And no doubt others will take the place of the exiled and executed. Demonstrations that proved the largest rebellion since the Revolution still reverberate not only within Iran, but in the shattered perception of Iran's government as monolithic, as the drama played out on the international stage.

No comments: