“Direct Action:” The New Attacks on Iran’s Nuclear Program

Although no outside observer can be sure exactly when it began, since some point in 2009 or, possibly, early 2010, opponents of the Iranian nuclear program have embarked on a campaign of covert ‘direct action’ to undermine Iran’s nuclear plans.

Although no outside observer can be sure exactly when it began, since some point in 2009 or, possibly, early 2010, opponents of the Iranian nuclear program have embarked on a campaign of covert “direct action” to undermine Iran’s nuclear plans. The term “direct action” has been used historically to characterize destructive, often violent acts by anonymous individuals, groups, or governments to achieve political objectives, and refers to the range of activities beyond traditional diplomatic and political processes but short of overt armed conflict.

The contours of two direct actions against the Iranian program have emerged so far from the shadowland of intelligence operations. The first is a computer worm, known as Stuxnet, said to have targeted Iran’s centrifuge-based uranium enrichment program sometime in 2009, disabling or destroying centrifuges and potentially setting back the program for a year or more. The second action is a pair of coordinated attempts in 2010 to assassinate two key scientists in the country’s nuclear program, killing one, Majid Shahriari, and wounding the second, Fereydoun Abbasi Davani. These actions may have been part of a wider campaign of assassination dating back several years.

It is not known who is behind these actions, but most observers—including Iranian officials—see the hands the United States and Israel, the two countries working most intently to halt Iran’s nuclear advances. Stuxnet is said to be so sophisticated that it could only be the product of a national-scale cyberwarfare program, perhaps a collaboration between Washington and Jerusalem, while the assassination of special weapons experts in the employ of adversaries has been a hallmark of Israeli policy since the 1960s, when Israel targeted German engineers assisting Egypt to develop guided missiles. Subsequent episodes attributed to Israel are the assassination in 1980 Yehia el-Mashad, an Egyptian scientist said to be working for Saddam Hussein, and the 1990 slaying of Gerald Bull, a Canadian artillery engineer then building a long-range “super-gun,” for Saddam.

Still, the true identity of the perpetrators—perhaps Saudi-backed anti-Shi’ite extremists, Chinese uber-hackers, or Iranian Green Movement reformers who suffered in Tehran’s prisons?—remains unknown and, for now, unprovable.

On taking office in January 2009, the Obama administration offered to engage Iran on restraining its nuclear program, setting a deadline of December 2009 for progress to be made, after which, US officials declared, Washington would pursue a more punitive strategy, including the imposition of “crippling” sanctions.

Iran repeatedly rebuffed the US engagement probes, however. Tensions were compounded when, sometime in mid-2009, the United States learned that Iran had been secretly building a uranium enrichment plant near the city of Qom. The fact that Iran had deliberately hidden a facility that could be configured to produce uranium for nuclear weapons left few doubts that this was, in fact, its intended purpose.

In October 2009, anticipating that its secret activities at Qom would soon be disclosed by the United States, Iran revealed the existence of the Qom facility to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and agreed to place it under the agency’s inspection system. The Qom plant complemented the enrichment facility that Iran had been operating at Natanz since 2006. That facility, too, was built in secret until exposed in late 2002 and subsequently placed under IAEA monitoring.

The revelation of the Qom unit was further evidence of Iran’s defiance of UN Security Council resolutions requiring that Tehran suspend its sensitive nuclear activities. It also strongly reinforced concerns, especially in Israel, that Iran was single-mindedly pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Although speculation intensified that Israel would press its US ally to take military action to destroy Iran’s key nuclear sites—or give Israel a green light to do so—Washington publicly rejected the military option, arguing that new UN and US sanctions, eventually adopted in June and July 2010, respectively, must first be given a chance to work.

It appears, however, that by early 2010, Washington, Jerusalem, or both—or, possibly, some other, yet-to-be-identified actor—may have adopted an alternative line of attack: directly damaging critical components of Iran’s nuclear program without the open use of military force. If this is indeed what is now unfolding, it is a tactic with multiple advantages for the perpetrators.

First, it appears that so far Tehran has been unable to determine with confidence who, precisely, is behind the cyber attack and assassination efforts. This prevents Iran from seeking the support of the international community to demand that the attacks be halted and to condemn those responsible.

The mystery also makes an overt Iranian military response, such as a conventionally-armed missile strike on Israel, equally infeasible, since any such response could credibly be portrayed as an unprovoked attack and hand Israel and the United States a diplomatic free pass to retaliate decisively. Were Iran to intensify anti-US attacks in Iraq or orchestrate a resurgence of Hezbollah rocket launches on Israel, these, too, might be treated as provocations that could trigger a powerful response.

Covert direct action to disrupt the Iranian nuclear program also avoids giving Tehran the diplomatic windfall that would inevitably follow an overt military strike on key Iranian nuclear facilities, all of which are now under IAEA monitoring. Israel escaped criticism for its 2007 bombing of Syria’s secretly-built reactor at al-Kibar, a facility Damascus had hidden from the IAEA. But, the Israelis suffered intense international condemnation after they destroyed Iraq’s IAEA-inspected Osiraq reactor in 1981.

Finally, the covert direct actions have delivered a powerful warning that opponents of Iran’s nuclear program are determined stop it. And they are prepared to physically interfere with that endeavor and can do so in ways that deflect the risk of military or diplomatic retaliation, which the overt use of armed force would entail. Moreover, the direct interventions demonstrate that key personnel working on the Iranian nuclear effort have been identified and face grave personal risks if they continue their efforts.

Opponents have also shown that they are very adroit, have devoted substantial resources to their direct actions, and likely have further sophisticated means for thwarting Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Indeed, with the current intensification of sanctions and covert interventions apparently bringing Iran to the negotiating table in December 2010 and again in January 2011, it seems that Tehran is feeling the pressure, which is likely to increase.

What comes next? Cyber attacks on Iranian refineries, essential to producing gasoline for the consumer market now that outsiders are curtailing supplies? Cyberwar on Iranian banks? Long-range mortar attacks by unidentified “Iranian opposition groups” on certain vulnerable Iranian nuclear sites? Bombings or arson at firms worldwide that provide sensitive technology to Tehran or assist it in selling Iranian crude oil on the international market? Further nuclear-sector assassinations or the assassination of leaders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard?

Whatever the specific future interventions, it is clear that a new game is afoot. Reading between the lines, the same Barack Obama who, immediately after talking office intensified the use covert drone attacks against Taliban and al Qaeda targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan, may subsequently have given the nod to no less potent covert direct action as the next phase in US-led efforts to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

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