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The Iranian Challenge: Synchronizing the Political and Technological Clocks

In a recent appearance before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Meir Dagan, head of the Mossad, claimed that while the Iranians are still seeking nuclear capabilities as a strategic objective, "they have encountered far more difficulties than expected and failed to advance as they had hoped technologically."[1] It is not clear whether Dagan was referring to technical difficulties at home or foreign difficulties, i.e., external intervention designed to affect the timetable for achieving a nuclear weapons capability.

Gary Samore, Obama's advisor on arms control and proliferation, also claimed recently that there is "a significant delay in the uranium enrichment process, which is influencing Iran's ability to produce nuclear weapons."[2]

The future of Iran's nuclear program relies on several different "clocks," chief among them the political clock and the technological clock. It is clear that the first clock is lagging behind the latter, which has almost completed its course. However, the covert struggle conducted for some time now in parallel to the ongoing political campaign and intended to disrupt/delay any technological progress appears to have more effect than  before, and is now perhaps the most auspicious tool for hindering Iran's progress towards nuclear capability. This article examines some of the implications of this mode of action in dealing with Iran, understanding that the ability to influence Iran's timetable for achieving nuclear capability is directly related the potential development of responses - be they political or military - designed to prevent it from achieving military capability.

Between the sanctions, which to date have not proven effective, and the military option, estimated (though sometimes exaggerated) to be a costly option, there are additional tools that may be used, even if limited by nature. Indeed, in recent years numerous  reports appeared in the media about desertion of senior Iranian officials, including scientists ("brain-drain project"),[3] as well as systematic sabotage of the nuclear infrastructure on Iranian soil (electrical and computer network sabotage in order to damage the uranium enrichment process)[4] and other "treatment" of equipment used in the program.[5]

Beyond the delay in the program (which is temporary and limited in light of Iran's proven ability to overcome previous failures), causing direct failures by an "invisible hand" has a considerable psychological effect. It sends a message to Iran that its plan is breached and accessible to the West. This may instill doubt and make Iran believe that any equipment malfunction is due to external intervention. Leaks of information on the subject also contribute significantly to Iranian "paranoia," as much as actual sabotage would. These actions may also create friction between those in charge of development and the Iranian regime. Indeed, it was claimed that behind last year's dismissal of Aghazadeh as head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization were accusations against him regarding repeated malfunctions in Natanz.

Covert activity may weaken Iran's determination, exact a high price, and signal that Tehran had better moderate its positions. Indeed, determined covert activity seems to be most attractive on all levels: it significantly increases the pressure on Iran in comparison with sanctions, while avoiding the price that a military attack on the nuclear facilities may incur. Perhaps in the perspective of the Americans, who are reportedly spearheading this campaign,[6] increasing the covert efforts against Iran's nuclear program buys precious time, allows sanctions to work, enables most of its troops to leave Iraq under relative calm, and may encourage decision makers in Israel not to rush to other options. And for those who would avoid military action, covert activity can heighten the pressure on Iran to accept compromises, while enabling preparation of political and economic solutions to the nuclear challenge.

It is of course possible that external intervention, especially if carried out on a wide scale, would increase Iran's determination to achieve a nuclear capability. In general, it is not clear whether Western intelligence agencies possess the capabilities to lead a campaign of sufficient magnitude to reach he desired end. Moreover, a small action gone wrong can cause considerable political damage and harm the entire effort.

Furthermore, one could ask whether covert activity actually hinders Iran's progress. Likely, yes, but it is unclear as to how long. Perhaps those failures that are now stalling Iran's nuclear program have already been taken into account by the Western intelligence assessments, or have caused negligible impact compared to the scope of the Iranian project. Iran has built a broad-based nuclear infrastructure with redundancy, dispersal, and protection in a variety of sites - open and hidden, civilian and military.

Over the last year, the hands of the "regime change clock" (moving slowly and hesitantly) and the hands of the "nuclear program immunity clock" (moving rapidly and determinedly) proceeded in opposite directions. The government quashed the protest that erupted following the presidential election last June, effectively stopping the momentum. However, the continued brutal repression may lead many Iranians who oppose the current regime and struggle under the economic burden, including those related to the nuclear program, to switch sides and assist the West in bringing the program to a halt. At the same time, the program's immunity to military action increases as time passes. This is mainly thanks to improvements in active and passive fortification of the different sites. In this situation, intelligence becomes a more significant tool to assist in delaying the plan.

It is possible that the "technological clock" is so near to completion that it is almost impossible to prevent Iran from reaching its goal. However, there is value in creating constraints on Iran's progress even if (and when) it will cross the threshold. Beyond the ability to delay and disrupt any progress, this course of action manages to exact a considerable  price from the Iranian regime - without hurting the Iranian people - and it may, in the eyes of those who still believe in the idea of dialogue, convince Iran to return to the negotiating table and moderate its position.[7]

It seems as if the West has yet to decide on the price it is willing to incur in order to prevent Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold. Effective covert actions may extend the distance Iran will have to cross until reaching this threshold and provide decision makers with more time to consider other courses of action. However, this method demands extreme caution and is not a magic solution - indeed, no such solution exists. The advantage of this course of action is in combining it with political and economic measures. It has likely already exacted a serious toll from the regime, but this regime is expected to stick to its policy if it assumes that the road to completing the nuclear program is not long and the further price it may have to pay is not overly high.

In general, it is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to prevent Iran from achieving its goal, and certainly so if only limited political and economic measures are taken. On the other hand, it is possible to influence its considerations in regard to if and when to "break out" towards a military nuclear capability. Sabotage on an industrial scale is another way to slow down the "technological clock" without implicating traces and without the necessity of dealing with the consequences of a "loud" military action, provided that this policy actually achieves tangible results. 

[1] Maariv, June 2, 2010

[2] AP, May 11, .2010

[3] New York Times, June 10, 2010

[4] New York Times, January 11, 2009

[5] Washington Times, August 29, 2009

[6] Washington Post, June 9, 2010.

[7] New York Times, June 10, 2010

The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) is an independent academic institute that studies key issues relating to Israel's national security and Middle East affairs.


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