In the wake of revelations that a computer virus may have set back Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the Western groups and analysts that track the Islamic Republic are saying “More of the same, please.”
The benefits of a nonviolent program that inhibits Iranian hegemony by keeping the country’s nuclear weapons program at bay are obvious: Better to stop Iran with cyber warfare—in this case, the Stuxnet computer virus, which reportedly caused Iran’s nuclear centrifuges to spin out of control—than actual warfare.
For those who favor engagement, the cyber attack buys more time to coax the regime in Tehran into compliance. For those who favor the stick, it allows more time to exert pressure on Iran through sanctions and diplomatic isolation.
Almost coincident with last weekend’s revelations—published in Sunday’s New York Times in a piece that detailed the extent of the damage caused by the virus—Meir Dagan, the outgoing head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, said that Iran likely would not have a bomb before 2015. Prior to that, Israeli assessments had predicted a weapon as early as this year.
The Stuxnet revelations, if anything, reinforce the need for a tough stance, said Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee. They underscore how committed Iran is to producing a bomb, he told JTA.
“It’s a reason to push down on the pedal,” said Berman, who crafted the most recent Iran sanctions law in the Congress. “Iran is still enriching uranium. It is absolutely critical we bear down with a comprehensive strategy of which sanctions is a critical part.”
Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said the delay was welcome but that the prospect of new complacency in the wake of its announcement makes it more urgent than ever to maintain a posture that includes the threat of a military strike on Iran.
“No individual measure is a silver bullet,” he said. Stuxnet “set back the program but hasn’t stopped it. If you’re going to target a hard-line regime, you’ve got to have a military option on the table.”
Such a concern was behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s furious backpedaling in the wake of Dagan’s pronouncement about 2015. The Israeli leader dismissed the prediction as one of several “intelligence estimates.” Dagan, reportedly under pressure from the Prime Minister’s Office, recast the deadline this week as 2014 and noted carefully that Iran is capable of surprises.
Champions of engagement also welcomed the revelations of the damage Stuxnet apparently caused to Iran’s nuclear program, seeing it as an opportunity.
“The cyber worm may have set back Iran’s nuclear program, but it is unlikely to alter its nuclear ambitions,” said Ori Nir, the spokesman for Americans for Peace Now. “In order to introduce real change, the U.S. and its international allies must change the manner in which they deal with Iran and start to comprehensively engage with Tehran.”
Hadar Susskind, the vice president for policy at J Street, the liberal pro-Israel lobby that advocates for U.S. pressure on Israel in talks with the Palestinians, said the news of the virus demonstrated that there are creative ways of working around military brinksmanship when it comes to Iran.
“Any nonviolent method is good,” Susskind said. “It shows we can create more time using a range of tools.”
No nation or entity has acknowledged being behind the virus, which seemed to be designed to assume control of the nervous system at Iran’s nuclear facilities and to spin the centrifuges out of control, damaging about a fifth of them. The Times, citing anonymous sources, suggested that it was a U.S.-led venture with Israel’s cooperation. Germany and Britain also may have been involved, though perhaps unwittingly.
Mark Fitzpatrick, the director of the nonproliferation and disarmament program at the London-based International Institute of International Studies, said it was critical not to regard the virus as a “deus ex machina” that would allow the world to shunt aside considerations of Iran’s ambitions.
“Any solution to the Iranian crisis will require the use of a range of tools, including tougher sanctions, tighter export controls, a containment and deterrence posture, and a readiness to talk,” he said. “Stuxnet obviously provides some breathing space by extending the timeline for Iran to get a bomb. It would be nice if it also gave Iranians a sense of futility that their enrichment efforts are not going to give them a bomb anytime soon.”
That’s not likely to happen, according to Geneive Abdo, the director of the Washington-based National Security Network’s Inside Iran project. Iran’s leadership is susceptible to popular Iranian support for its nuclear program.
Because of public opinion, she said, “They’re very careful that they’re not compromising on this issue.”
If anything, Abdo said, the revelations will prod the regime to become more recalcitrant when it comes to major compromises, like shutting down enrichment entirely. Iran has tended to harden its line when it is weak.
Instead, she said, Western powers might press for compromise on smaller issues like a broader regime of U.N. inspections. Western powers are scheduled to meet this weekend in Istanbul with Iran to discuss its nuclear program.
“The West should use this breathing space to try and convince Iran to agree to more verification,” Abdo said. Citing her sources inside Iran, she said that “The Iranians are more fearful that more damage is on the way, so that’s an incentive to compromise to some degree.”
Indeed, Iran last week invited representatives of major powers to tour its enrichment plant in Natanz to see that Iran is limiting itself to civilian-level nuclear power. The major powers—including the United States, Russia, the European Union and China—declined, saying that the only inspections they would sanction would be by qualified inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog.
Dagan’s prediction and the Stuxnet leaks may have been timed precisely to pressure Iran to expand such inspections ahead of this weekend’s talks, said Trita Parsi, the director of the National Iranian American Council and the author of a number of books on Iran-Israel relations.
“The Obama administration has changed the metrics,” Parsi said.
“We’re not talking about the LEU count,” he said, referring to Iran’s burgeoning supply of low-enriched uranium, which had worried the West. “We’re talking about the centrifuges that have been destroyed. Shifting the conversation to Stuxnet puts you in a stronger position.”
Domestically, Parsi said, the revelations also may pay off as the White House fends off demands from Congress that it ratchet up pressure on Iran, including through the military option.
Berman’s outlook suggested that was not likely.
“Let me know when Iran certifiably suspends enrichment and allows inspections, throughout all its territory, and then we can have a conversation about sanctions,” he said. “Having that military option on the table is an important part of achieving that goal and affecting their calculations.”