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Is Sabotage the Key to Stopping Iran’s Nukes?

December 1, 2010

by: Joshua Spurlock. BFP Israel Mosaic Radio

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As of print time, the extent of the delay to Bushehr or the impact of Stuxnet on the Iranian nuclear program were both unknown. Not surprisingly, the Iranians said Stuxnet was not the cause of the nuclear reactor delay. And while a delay to the Bushehr reactor is welcome news to opponents of Iran’s suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons, the reactor has safeguards in place that are supposed to prevent Iran from using the spent nuclear fuel for weapons. Therefore, the greater threat is not Bushehr, but any secret sites in Iran that could be enriching uranium nuclear fuel to weapons grade. Of course, Iran did not even unveil such a hypothetical site in the Stuxnet aftermath, much less declare it was having problems due to the computer worm.

Nonetheless, the Stuxnet episode highlighted a potential vulnerability in Iran’s nuclear program, all the while raising hopes that there might be another solution to the Iranian threat outside of direct military action. Dr. Emily Landau, senior research fellow and director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, said in an interview with Bridges for Peace that sabotage is another method of slowing down Iran’s nuclear program. “I think people are recognizing that…sabotaging behind the scenes is something that can be at least as effective as military action without all the negative ramifications,” said Landau. “At least it’s delaying the program, buying more time.”

However, secret sabotage efforts are difficult for the public to measure. One expert told The New York Timesthat Stuxnet was actually not a form of national sabotage, based in part on the worm’s inability to update its creator about its results. Meanwhile, Landau noted that based on media reports, it’s “really hard to know” how much damage it had done. Even if it was sabotage, with the US being only one of the nations interested in halting Iran’s nuclear program, it remains unclear who is behind Stuxnet.

Nonetheless, The Washington Postreported that Stuxnet potentially represented a dangerous weapon in industrial-scale cyberwarfare, and such malware could be just a part of broader sabotage efforts aimed at complicating things for Iran. The New York Times has unveiled a secret sabotage program under the George W. Bush administration that was targeting Iran’s nuclear program and has also reported that Barack Obama has continued those efforts.

Other Options

In another example of potential sabotage, Landau said that a reduction in the number of effectively-spinning Iranian centrifuges used for enriching nuclear fuel at Natantz could be even more significant than the Bushehr delay. Haaretz cited an expert who wrote in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitungthat the Natantz enrichment facility may also have been harmed by Stuxnet. A Billet of highly enriched uranium
Photo by en.wikipedia.org
Again, it is difficult to know if the centrifuge situation is even due to sabotage, and Landau said Iran’s pace for enriching uranium has not been reduced despite fewer centrifuges being used, showing Iran appears to be making advances in their enrichment approach. Still, in a race against time, any delay or reduction helps.

Natanz nuclear facility in Iran
Another potential way of delaying Iran is through defections or possibly even abductions of key personnel, such as nuclear scientists. This would remove important workers from the Iranian program and, Landau noted, possibly gain another edge—the personnel might be able to provide intelligence on the program.

Not a Permanent Solution

Landau noted that it remains to be seen just how much damage Stuxnet did to Iran, not trusting Iran’s media spin on the matter. While not an expert on cyberwarfare, she said she had the feeling “a lot of damage can be done in this way.” However,she ruled out the prospect that sabotage could permanently derail Iran’s nuclear pursuits unless somehow enough delays could be achieved until there was a genuine regime change in Iran, an extremely difficult and risky process to predict.

“All of this [sabotage], of course, is not going to stop the program,” said Landau. “I can’t underline enough that these activities can be part of a strategy, but the only way to absolutely deal with this problem is to use the time that is gained, use the intelligence that is gained, in a way that some kind of solution is found to the problem. And I don’t think there’s any way to come to a final solution without it being the product of some kind of hard negotiation that needs to take place with the regime in Iran.”

Despite Landau’s beliefs and hopes, the possibility of achieving genuine negotiations with Iran that don’t threaten other interests of the West is uncertain. But in the meantime, sabotage looks to be a usefultool for the West in the mini-cold war with Iran’s nuclear program without all the frightening aftermath of bombing the heart of the oil industry. Here’s hoping the West is using the extra time to find a solution that will work.

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