Covert operations are not a viable option for preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon
Covert operations at best can only delay Iran's nuclear weapons program and at worst provoke Iran to retaliate either by escalating their own covert operations or by other more overt military responses.
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Such clandestine activities, however, by their very nature can cut both ways. High- profile attempts to damage or degrade Iran’s nuclear technology (such as the Stuxnet virus, which is believed to have been developed through joint cooperation of US and Israeli clandestine services) run the risk of triggering a conflict between Iran and the West. Certainly the attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists, if indeed they were committed by Western intelligence agencies, would constitute a blatant act of aggression with a high likelihood of Iranian retaliation. As with any covert operation, there is a risk that such activity could be interpreted by Tehran as an act of war and could therefore be used to justify an escalatory response. In fact, debate surrounding recent cyberattacks on the Pentagon as well as the Stuxnet virus led the US Department of Defense to conduct a review that concluded that acts of computer sabotage can constitute an act of war.52 Any strategy utilizing covert acts of aggression, therefore, must be carefully calibrated not to provoke a violent Iranian response, or worse: all-out war. Given that the potential upside of these tactics is to delay rather than halt Iranian progress, Western leaders should seriously reconsider whether the risk of triggering Iranian retaliation is worth setting Iran’s enrichment program back a few months.
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For the past year and a half, reports of deliberate sabotage have dominated discussion of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear program. A computer worm dubbed Stuxnet, which infected several Iranian industrial sites, captivated world attention. It appears to have been designed specifically to target the computers controlling Iran’s centrifuges. Assassinations and attempted hits on Iranian nuclear scientists added to the perception that Iran’s nuclear program had suffered setbacks.10 These stories, however, obscured the fact that Iran’s nuclear program, far from slowing, had actually accelerated.
Indeed, although Iran’s main enrichment facility at Natanz did experience centrifuge problems in 2010, the rate of uranium enrichment at that site has grown steadily; by May 2011, that rate had almost doubled from 2009 (see figure 1). Several recent developments portend Tehran’s advancement toward nuclear weapons capability. These changes include (a) Tehran’s continued production of 19.8 percent enriched uranium; (b) Iran’s testing and installation of advanced centrifuge models which could enrich uranium as much as six times faster than the model currently in use; (c) installation of centrifuges and start of enrichment at the previously undisclosed underground Fordow facility near Qom, with the stated purpose of tripling the 19.8 percent enriched uranium output; and (d) evidence that Tehran never ceased its nuclear weapons program.
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Covert action probably entails the least risk of political complications or a harsh Iranian response. Such action could include efforts to encourage the defection of key engineers or scientists, the introduction of fatal design flaws into key pieces of equipment or of destructive viruses into critical computer systems, or the sabotage of critical facilities. In the event of covert action, Iranian authorities may not be able to determine, for instance, whether damage to a critical facility was caused by an industrial accident or sabotage. Even if Tehran suspected sabotage, it might not be able to determine whether such action was the work of Iranian dissidents or foreign intelligence services. Such uncertainty would greatly reduce the risks of a nationalist backlash and Iranian retaliation.Covert action entails many challenges, however, not least of which is that of access to the facilities to be targeted. Iran's nuclear infrastructure is extensive, and for that reason, it would be difficult to disrupt. Additionally, covert actions would have to be sustained over time to succeed. Because of these difficulties, covert action would probably not have a broad, long-term effect on Iran's nuclear program or obviate the need for military action.
As the Trump administration searches for alternatives to the nuclear deal with Iran, the author warns that a renewed campaign of covert network attacks like Stuxnet is more likely to spur Tehran’s nuclear efforts than hinder them.
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