The great Iranian nuclear guessing game
On April 24, 1984, the respected London-based Jane’s Defence Weekly reported that Iran was in the final stages of producing a nuclear bomb that could be ready in two years. Sound familiar?
In the past quarter century, forecasts of when Iran might have a nuclear bomb have been issued, and proven wrong, so frequently that nuclear experts have coined the phrase “rolling estimate.” Forecasts have come from a wide variety of sources, including Iraq (during its disastrous war with Iran), the U.S. Congress, the Central Intelligence Agency, Israel’s Mossad, prominent Israeli politicians, and think tanks on both sides of the Atlantic.
Iranian bomb estimates have been making headlines again this month after Meir Dagan, on the day he handed over leadership of the Mossad to his successor, said he did not believe Iran could have a nuclear capability before 2015. Last year, he forecast Iran could reach that stage within a year.
Dagan ascribed the revised time frame to a series of malfunctions in the Iranian nuclear programme. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking two days after the Israeli spy chief’s new forecast, said Iran’s nuclear program, “from our best estimate, has slowed down.” The main reason, according to Clinton: U.N.-blessed economic sanctions against Iran have been effective.
There is cause for skepticism about bomb prognostications. Iran has consistently denied that it wants to build nuclear weapons and doing so would depend on a political decision by the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Western Iran experts and intelligence officials tend to agree that no such decision has yet been taken.
Whether it is drawing closer or becoming more distant will remain shrouded in Iran’s opaque and multi-layered government system even after talks in Istanbul this weekend between Iranian negotiators and representatives of the five members of the United Nations Security Council (the U.S., China, Russia, France and Britain) plus Germany.
In advance of the talks, a diverse group of U.S. experts and organizations, from human rights and pro-democracy to arms control groups, urged the administration of President Barack Obama to “reinvigorate” its diplomacy because “diplomacy is the only sustainable means of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.”
Ironically, it was not diplomacy but a campaign of sabotage and murder that gave American and Israeli officials reason to believe Iran was farther from the bomb than previously estimated, thus providing more time for talk rather than the military strikes American neo-conservatives and many Israeli politicians last year saw as increasingly inevitable.
STUXNET AND ASSASSINATIONS
By many accounts, the principal reason the Iranian nuclear programme slowed down is a sophisticated computer worm which took out almost 1,000 of the centrifuges at the Natanz uranium-enrichment facility. After many months of speculation on the creators of the worm, Stuxnet, the New York Times reported this week that it was a joint U.S.-Israeli effort. Neither the U.S. nor Israel denied the story.
There has been official silence on the near-simultaneous attacks in Tehran last November on two Iranian nuclear scientists. The hits, in different parts of the capital, were carried out by motorcycle-riding assassins who magnetically attached bombs to the cars of their targets. One, Majid Shariari, was killed in the blast. The other stopped his vehicle and jumped out before the bomb went off.
The attacks highlighted the view of many that the end justifies the means when it comes to stopping Iran from pursuing the bomb. “I don’t know who’s behind it but whoever did it should be blessed,” Ilan Mizrahi, a former deputy chief of the Mossad, Israeli’s principal intelligence agency, said in an interview during a recent visit to Washington.
Stuxnet has given rise to warnings that this kind of sabotage could backfire with dire consequences for the saboteurs. At the end of an extraordinarily detailed technical report last December on how the malware took over control of Iranian centrifuges, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), a Washington think tank, sounded a sober note of concern.
“It is important for governments to approach the question of whether using a tool like Stuxnet could open the door to future national security risks or adversely and unintentionally affect U.S. allies,” ISIS said. “Countries hostile to the United States may feel justified in launching their own attacks against U.S. facilities…(and) shut down large portions of national power grids or other critical infrastructure.” That could cause a national emergency.
Gary Sick, an Iran scholar at Columbia University, echoed such concerns. While the military and technical capabilities of the U.S. and Israel dwarf those of Iran, he says, “cyber warfare may be an attractive way to level the playing field – the ultimate in asymmetric warfare.”
Whether and when that might happen depends as much on Iran’s complex internal politics as the decision to go ahead and get the bomb.
(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com)