The great Iranian nuclear guessing game

January 21, 2011

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.

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


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A more serious result of the Stuxnet worm is the mistrust of American technology among other, more advanced countries who may inadvertently purchase US or Israeli source components in systems. This makes it clear that such a purchase decision is unwise. To use US or Israeli source software or firmware is asking for domination.

It also is good news for unemployed American software engineers since tens of thousands of such individuals are entirely capable of rewriting such software and firmware to close the “back doors” built in. How much would “clean” components be worth?

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

@txgadfly, supposedly the us has already found malware in electronics from china designed to spy, so i think most countries are already wary of electronics produced by a potential adversary. and siemans, a german company, made the computers targeted and russia designed the nuclear plant. it doesnt matter where the hardware/software came from, stuxnet infected via bad security with usb “thumb drives”. lastly i seriously doubt that iran purchased windows operating systems, most likely stolen like the design for the centerfuges (stolen by a.q. khan from his dutch employer)

Posted by foobotamatica | Report as abusive

So American and/or Israeli secret agents are culpable in murdering Iranian тгсдуфк scientists. That means that they and their superiors are terrorists pure and simple. Will they be tried and convicted for their crimes?

Posted by Heretic1 | Report as abusive

Iranin community is not responsible for nuclear bomb becouse it is not safe, even for US.
We have no safe storable place for such dengerous material du to earthquake and satelites, etc.
forther mor it is haram in our religion

Posted by | Report as abusive

Whatever happened to soveriegnty?

Posted by diddums | Report as abusive

Time for the Iranian regime to go. They sow nothing but lies, deceit, pain and suffering. They bring shame on themselves and Iran.

Posted by wallydragon | Report as abusive

The Iranian government wants nukes because it’s a popular cause. With the cutting of oil and food subsidies they provide to their people as well as an unpopular, illegitimate presidential results and the brutal oppression that followed after, there’s no way they’re going to give up on something that’s keeping them popular.

Posted by Peanut345 | Report as abusive

So most of the people posting here are sympathetic to the Iranians. Interesting. Helps explain why this is such a difficult problem. It takes a special breed to read about an executed Iranian nuke scientist and start calling for the conviction of the responsible party. Or to wonder what ever happened to “sovereignty”. Eventually you gotta decide what side you’re on. Let me guess, you’re on the “side of peace”.

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