international analysis and commentary

The US and the covert war against Iran: not perfect, but an option

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For understandable reasons, President Obama does his best to stress that there are no strategic differences between the US and Israel with regard to Iran’s nuclear program. However, this veneer of unity hides a more problematic reality, as the two countries are working with very different timetables in their handling of the Iranian crisis. US military capabilities are far superior to Israel’s, which means that the US has considerably more time than Israel before it reaches the point where it is unable to stop Iran’s nuclear program by military means. Israel, unlike its superpower ally, is on a tight schedule, as its Prime Minister and Defense Minister believe that the Israeli armed forces have to strike in September at the latest. Military action after September is thought to be futile, as the nuclear program would have progressed too far.

Matters are complicated further by the fact that an attack in September would pose great difficulties for the Obama administration, if only because skyrocketing oil prices could severely curtail Obama’s chances at re-election. Also, given the pressure from the Republican Party during the campaign season, it will be extremely difficult for Obama not to back Israel, which means that he will be forced to get the US involved in an escalating Middle East conflict. Should the strikes take place after his re-election, he will be less susceptible to accusations of betrayal of Israel and be in a better position to pressure Israel not to go to war.

In other words, the timing of an Israeli air strike is crucial for the Obama administration, which is therefore working hard to postpone Israeli action until after the elections. Perhaps there is a case to be made for the covert war. If the US could get Israel to step up action along these lines, maybe then Iran’s nuclear program could be delayed, and the necessity of an attack in September would be removed.

So far, assuming that Israel is indeed behind it, the country’s covert war to keep Iran from building the bomb have taken three forms. First, in November 2011, two reportedly heavy blasts struck Iran’s nuclear facilities. After the second explosion, Iran’s military chief of staff claimed that his country’s nuclear program would suffer only “a short-term delay of a few days”, but the satellite pictures from after the explosion showed considerable damage to buildings on the site. Also, the first explosion killed fourteen soldiers and an Iranian general who was supposedly involved in attempts to put nuclear warheads on Iran’s Shabab-3 rocket.

The second pillar of Israel’s secret campaign seems to have been taken straight out of a James Bond movie. Several prominent nuclear scientists were killed by magnetic bombs that were stuck to their cars by motorcyclists who managed to avoid capture. The first such assassination took place in January 2010 and was followed by similar operations in November 2010 and January 2012.

The third pillar is, technologically speaking, the most sophisticated one. In September 2010, the Stuxnet virus was used to sabotage the uranium enrichment facilities near the central Iranian city of Natanz. The exact impact of this cyber attack is unclear, but Iranian officials, usually reluctant to make admissions to this effect, said that the damage was considerable. Experts later expressed their admiration for the apparently stunning technological skills needed to build the Stuxnet virus.

In general, the covert war betrays a high degree of operational expertise on the part of the perpetrators. For instance, it is safe to assume that the locations where the explosions took place were heavily guarded, but those behind the attacks were still able to cause blasts that were heard many miles away. As for the liquidations, one cannot help but be struck by their operational complexity. They were carried out in broad daylight, some during rush hour, and yet the perpetrators escaped. Also, the killers must have had detailed intelligence about the victims’ daily routines and had to find a way around the security measures that were in place to protect the lives of these highly valuable human assets. Further, the explosives that were used were not the crude and unstable self-made devices typically used by jihadist terrorists in Europe. Instead, the bombs in Iran were designed to direct the explosion inwards, into the car, so as to avoid collateral damage.

As long as a degree of secrecy can be maintained, actions like these do not constitute a casus belli, while they may still – as far as one can tell from the outside – delay Iran’s nuclear program by causing material damage or by depriving Iran of the necessary expertise. Thus, this approach clearly has its merits for the Obama administration. In this regard, it is interesting to note that there are reasons to believe that the US is already facilitating Israel’s secret operations. For instance, there has been a lobby for the removal off the US-terror list of the People’s Mujahideen of Iran (MEK), a group believed to have worked with the Mossad in the preparation and execution of the bombings and assassinations. Unsurprisingly, these attempts to exonerate the group have fuelled speculations about US-involvement in the plots. And in fairness, the MEK at some point had ties with Ramzi Youssef, who committed the first World Trade Center bombing, so unless there is a geostrategic interest involved, it is difficult to see why hardline and hawkish figures like Tom Ridge and John Bolton would campaign on the group’s behalf.

The major question, of course, is whether the damage that can be inflicted in a covert war is enough to persuade Israel not to attack in September, especially now that Iran recently arrested and executed alleged participants in the campaign. While this uncertainty is, of course, a drawback, it is important to note that there are few other options between, on the one hand, the worst case scenario of an escalating Middle East conflict and, on the other, acceptance of the reality that Iran will in a few years have a nuclear bomb. This latter option may not be altogether bad, as deterrence has a good track record, but does require a strategic reorientation from Obama, who made it clear that his intention is to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons in the first place. Until such a reassessment of the situation takes place and until Obama’s re-election is certain, there is not much the US can do but humor Israel in its covert war and hope for the best.