Signs of what appears to be a stepped-up covert effort to inflict damage on Iran's nuclear program suggest that there are more ways of confronting the country over its violation of nuclear nonproliferation commitments than sanctions or a military strike.
With the repeated failure of the international community to get Iran to negotiate seriously over its nuclear program, concerned countries could understandably see covert action that can’t be traced back to the perpetrator as preferable to air strikes. The key question is, though, whether it’s possible to continue delaying Iran's nuclear timetable without risking escalation to full-scale war.
Covert activities – from cyber attacks and targeted killings to “mysterious” explosions at military and nuclear facilities – have some important common features. Most significantly, they involve pinpointing and surgically targeting the specific nuclear threat while minimizing the collateral damage. The idea is that each operation, in and of itself, isn’t blatant or overwhelming enough to force Iran to react.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
But these attacks also deliver a message to Iran that whoever is behind them has direct access to nuclear and military assets within the country. The demonstrated ability to penetrate Iranian territory and facilities underscores Iranian vulnerability to the suspected attacker’s long reach. As such, beyond any delays to Iran’s program, this demonstrated “invisible hand” has a psychological effect, which enhances Iran’s sense of paranoia that any equipment malfunction might very well be due to external intervention.
This type of action significantly increases the pressure on Iran, even beyond what has been achieved through sanctions, while at the same time avoiding the high price that a military attack on the nuclear facilities could incur. Over the course of a single month, critical links in the chain for developing a military nuclear capability in Iran have been hit: a blast at a missile base caused significant damage and killed a general who was key to Iran’s long-range missile program; Iran admitted that it had been on the receiving end of a new cyber attack, called “duqu,” and an explosion reportedly damaged the critical uranium conversion facility near Isfahan.
The cumulative effect of confronting Iran covertly could be not only to exact a high price from it in terms of the direct setbacks to its program, but also to weaken its determination to push forward with its plans. Certainly it appears that cornering Iran may already be having an effect – the alleged Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador in Washington may, for example, have been a response to alleged U.S. covert operations. Similarly, one motivation for last week’s storming of the British Embassy in Tehran could have been the assessment by Iranian leaders that a war is being waged against Iran without anyone taking responsibility or leaving fingerprints.
Yet the response from the Iranian leadership is also appearing a little confused. Following the explosion in Isfahan, for example, Iran’s official news service initially reported the blast, but when the news began to appear in foreign media, it promptly removed the item from its sites. It has also proclaimed that the latest incidents are merely accidents. The covert operations are also not resulting in any internal rallying around the regime, something the Iranian leaders would count on if they are attacked militarily.