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The Trick to Sabotaging Iran

Covert operations may offer the best way of slowing Iran’s nuclear program without all-out war. But how long can they last?

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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.

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.

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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.  

The Obama administration, for its part, believes there’s still time to try to influence Iran by using what the president has referred to as the “dual track” – sanctions, but keeping the door open to diplomacy. However, recent public debate in Israel has raised speculation over whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak might no longer share this assessment, and are interested in pushing for a decision to act unilaterally.

Yet despite these apparently diverging views, there are signs that both states see the value of covert operations that target Iran's nuclear weapons program. If this is the case, then it’s possible that the Americans are pressing ahead with a covert campaign in the belief that it’s the only way to convince decision makers in Israel not to rush toward other options.

Obama’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq bespeaks of American reluctance to be involved in further combat confrontations. Moreover, the severe economic crisis in the United States and Europe, and the fact that the United States is entering a presidential election year, limit Obama's room for maneuver. Finally, even if successful, military strikes can only delay Iran's progress, and there would be significant consequences to any attack in the regional and international arenas.

Another benefit of covert operations in U.S. eyes is that they have the potential to extract a considerable price from the Iranian regime without hurting the Iranian people. Perhaps in part as a result, such operations have enjoyed a surprising degree of tacit support from the international community – the absence of any condemnation is in stark contrast to the widespread criticism of any talk of potential military action.

But back to the question posed earlier: although covert action can no doubt delay Iran's nuclear program, how long will it be effective? Certainly, according to the head of the Israeli Military Intelligence Research Directorate, Itay Brun, the blast at the missile base on November 12 could indeed have delayed Teheran’s development of long-range missiles.

But how long can this be sustained effectively? Taking into account the scope of the Iranian project, the answer could be: not for long. After all, Iran has built a broad-based nuclear infrastructure with redundancies, dispersal, and protection in a variety of sites – open and hidden, civilian and military.

Still, for now it seems the U.S. and others have little choice but to explore the limits to covert operations. But these must be carried out extremely carefully – while no single action would likely be enough to push Iran to the brink, the cumulative effect of increasing operations could ultimately have that effect.

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Maintaining the “one step short” of military action approach will therefore be a challenge. But it still may be the best way of hindering Iran's march to the bomb. 

Emily B. Landau is director of the Arms Control and Regional Security program at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). Yoel Guzansky is a research fellow at INSS and a former member of Israel's National Security Council.