Buy­ing time with Iran

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - da­vidig­natius@wash­post.com

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has con­cluded that Iran’s nu­clear pro­gram has been slowed by a com­bi­na­tion of sanc­tions, sab­o­tage and Iran’s own tech­ni­cal trou­bles. Be­cause of the de­lay, U.S. of­fi­cials see what one de­scribes as “a lit­tle bit of space” be­fore any mil­i­tary show down with Iran.

Is­raeli of­fi­cials, too, see more time on the clock. Moshe Yaalon, Is­rael’s deputy prime min­is­ter, noted the Ira­nian slow­down in a Dec. 29 in­ter­view with Is­rael Ra­dio and said the West has up to three years to stop Tehran from mak­ing a bomb.

“ These [Ira­nian] dif­fi­cul­ties slow the time­line, of course,” said Yaalon, a for­mer Is­raeli de­fense chief. And last Thurs­day, out­go­ing Mos­sad chief Meir Da­gan told Is­raeli re­porters that Iran couldn’t build a bomb be­fore 2015 at the ear­li­est, in part be­cause of un­spec­i­fied “mea­sures that have been de­ployed against them.”

A se­nior Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial gave me a sim­i­lar ac­count of Iran’s trou­bles. “They’re not mov­ing as fast as we had feared a year ago,” he said.

This new as­sess­ment of Iran’s nu­clear set­backs has low­ered the tem­per­a­ture on what had been 2010’s hottest strate­gic is­sue. Last sum­mer, Jerusalem andWash­ing­ton were talk­ing them­selves into a war fever, prompted in part by a pow­er­ful ar­ti­cle in the At­lantic by Jef­frey Gold­berg that starkly de­scribed the like­li­hood of mil­i­tary ac­tion. This fever seems to have bro­ken.

What’s in­creas­ingly clear is that low-key weapons — covert sab­o­tage and eco­nomic sanc­tions— are ac­com­plish­ing many of the ben­e­fits of mil­i­tary ac­tion, with­out the costs. It’s a de­vi­ous ap­proach — all the more so be­cause it’s ac­com­pa­nied by nearcon­stant U.S. pro­pos­als of diplo­matic di­a­logue— but in that sense, it matches Iran’s own op­er­at­ing style of pur­su­ing mul­ti­ple op­tions at once.

Of­fi­cials won’t dis­cuss the clan­des­tine pro­gram of cy­ber­at­tack and other sab­o­tage be­ing waged against the Ira­nian nu­clear pro­gram. Yet we see the ef­fects — in crash­ing cen­trifuges and re­duced op­er­a­tions of the Ira­nian en­rich­ment fa­cil­ity at Natanz— but don’t un­der­stand the causes. That’s the way covert ac­tion is sup­posed to work.

The most di­rect con­fir­ma­tion that sab­o­tage has paid off came from Ira­nian Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad, who said in Novem­ber that the Stuxnet com­puter virus had dam­aged the Natanz op­er­a­tion. “ They suc­ceeded in cre­at­ing prob­lems for a limited num­ber of our cen­trifuges with the soft­ware they had in­stalled in elec­tronic parts,” he said.

A fas­ci­nat­ing (and re­mark­ably de­tailed) ac­count of the Stuxnet at­tack was pub­lished Dec. 22 by the In­sti­tute for Sci­ence and In­ter­na­tional Se­cu­rity. The study de­scribed how the virus was tar­geted to at­tack a key elec­tronic con­trol in the cen­trifuges, known as a “fre­quency con­verter,” so that the spin of the ro­tors was in­creased and slowed in away that would cause a mal­func­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to the ISIS re­port, the virus may have been in­tro­duced in early or mid 2009. By late 2009 or early 2010, the study said, Iran de­com­mis­sioned and re­placed about 1,000 cen­trifuges — far more than nor­mal break­age. The virus hid its elec­tronic tracks, but an anal­y­sis by the se­cu­rity firm Sy­man­tec showed that the code in­cluded the term “DEADFOO7,” which could re­fer to the avi­a­tion term for a dead en­gine and also be a play on James Bond’s fic­tional code name.

Stuxnet was just one of what ap­peared to have been a se­ries of ef­forts to dis­rupt the sup­ply chain of the Ira­nian nu­clear pro­gram. “Such overt and covert dis­rup­tion ac­tiv­i­ties have had sig­nif­i­cant ef­fect in slow­ing Iran’s cen­trifuge pro­gram,” con­cluded the ISIS.

The de­lays in the Ira­nian pro­gram are im­por­tant be­cause they add strate­gic warn­ing time for the West to re­spond to any Ira­nian push for a bomb. U.S. of­fi­cials es­ti­mate that if Iran were to try a “ break out” by en­rich­ing ura­nium at Natanz to the 90 per­cent level needed for a bomb, that move (re­quir­ing re­con­fig­u­ra­tion of the cen­trifuges) would be de­tectable — and it would take Iran one to two more years to make a bomb.

The Ira­ni­ans could try what U.S. of­fi­cials calla “sneak­out” at a se­cret en­rich­ment fa­cil­ity like the one they con­structed near Qom. They would have to use their poorly per­form­ing (and per­haps still Stuxnet-in­fected) old cen­trifuges or an un­proven new model. Al­ter­na­tive en­rich­ment tech­nolo­gies, such as lasers or a heavy-wa­ter re­ac­tor, don’t ap­pear fea­si­ble for Iran now, of­fi­cials say. For­eign technology from Rus­sia and other sup­pli­ers has been halted, and the Ira­ni­ans can’t build the com­plex hard­ware (such as a “pres­sure ves­sel” needed for the heavy - wa­ter re­ac­tor) on their own.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion keeps hold­ing the door open for ne­go­ti­a­tions, and an­other round is sched­uled this month in Is­tan­bul. But the real news is that Tehran has tech­ni­cal prob­lems — bring­ing sighs of re­lief (and a few mis­chievous smiles) in the West.

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