Two weeks ago, the departing Mossad chief, Meir Dagan, gave an extraordinary briefing to about two dozen senior Israeli journalists. Extraordinary for two reasons: First, because the head of an organization engaged in clandestine activities all over the world had not previously made a habit of taking large groups of local reporters into his confidence. And second, because he vouchsafed the assessment that Iran, which had hitherto been understood to be perhaps a year away from a nuclear weapons capability, was now unlikely to reach that goal before the middle of the decade.
Dagan’s briefing, his radical departure from years of secretive Mossad scheming in the country’s defense, was not supposed to have been for attribution: He was providing information that the reporters could use in their writing, it was made clear to the assembled journalists, but that was not to be presented in his name. Every news outlet that was present at the briefing, The Jerusalem Post included, faithfully honored this understanding. Except for one, Yediot Aharonot, which, on its front page the following day, splashed a story headlined “Outgoing Mossad chief Meir Dagan warns: ‘Don’t hurry to attack Iran,” complete with a picture of Dagan and a sub-headline that quoted him as saying that various “actions against Iran have pushed it away from a bomb until 2015 at the earliest.”
On Monday of this past week, Dagan made another appearance, before the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and backpedaled a little. There were, he now took pains to stress, “certain scenarios” under which the ayatollahs could “shorten the time” it would take them to go nuclear. Certainly, he noted, there was no room for complacency. North Korea, he cautioned, was a case study in the dangers of an inadequate international response to a rogue state’s nuclear ambitions.
It has been speculated that Dagan’s uncharacteristic venture into the media minefields was designed by this shrewdest of operators to undercut Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s relentless drumbeat regarding Teheran. It was notable that shortly after Dagan’s press briefing, Netanyahu rushed to play down the 2015 timeline as merely representing “intelligence estimates.”
Dagan, it is argued, considers that premature military intervention in Iran would be a grave strategic mistake. Yediot
, indeed, directly quoted him as saying “One should go to war only if the sword is at the throat.”
But Dagan may also have had another, related aim in going semi-public: reversing what until recently had been the growing sense, around the world, that in the absence of high-risk military intervention, by Israel or anyone else, a nuclear Iran was a fait accompli.
Teheran has worked hard to create that sense – hyping each ostensible technological advance, publicizing every expansion of its uranium-enrichment capacity, repeatedly asserting its membership in the select nuclear club. Its working hypothesis, plainly, was that if it could persuade the watching world that its nuclear drive was unstoppable, it would undermine the international will to thwart it, via sanctions and other pressures. Image and hype would gradually become reality.
Dagan’s press briefing went a good distance toward countering the defeatist mindset Teheran has been trying to inculcate among its worldwide opponents. Iran, he made clear, had been several years away from a nuclear weapons capability when he took office in 2002. And now, more than eight years on, although it had made immense strides forward, it was still several years away.
Clearly, ran the Mossad chief’s inference, there was nothing inevitable about a nucleararmed Iran, after all. And, by implied extension, there was every incentive to intensify both clandestine activities against the nuclear program, and overt international sanctions against the fundamentalist regime that is pursuing it. Iran can certainly be stopped, and without resort to military action, ran Dagan’s message – a message both directed at his own prime minister and designed to further invigorate international sanctions pressure.
DRAMATICALLY BOLSTERING this contention have been the flood of foreign reports in the course of Dagan’s time at the Mossad of sabotage in the Iranian program – reports culminating in the last few days in unprecedented revelations about the effects of the Stuxnet computer virus, apparently deeply embedded in Iran’s nuclear computer systems.
Over the years, we heard first about a strange fire breaking out at an Iranian laboratory, about a plane linked to the nuclear program crashing, about various equipment malfunctions. Then nuclear scientists started disappearing. A year ago, nuclear physicist Massoud Ali Mohammadi was killed by a remote-controlled bomb. Two months earlier, his colleague Majid Shahriari, a quantum physicist, was assassinated by an explosive device affixed to his car by a passing motorcyclist. A third top scientist, Fereydoon Abbasi Davani, narrowly escaped the same fate in a similar operation that same morning.
But Stuxnet has elevated the reported impact of sabotage to an entirely new level. In recent weeks, the Post has carried several articles detailing the ostensible damage achieved by this fiendishly sophisticated computer worm, quoting international experts suggesting that it has set back the uranium enrichment program by two years. The virus reportedly caused the motors driving the enrichment centrifuges at Iran’s Natanz facility to speed up to the point where the centrifuges smashed into each other, and the expert opinion was that Iran would have to replace all of its computer equipment if it wanted to be freed of Stuxnet’s catastrophically contagious attentions.
Our reports, and some in other newspapers, cited speculation that Israel may have had a hand, or more pertinently a head, in the ultra-sophisticated virus assault. But no Israeli officials were taking any credit.
Then, last weekend, The New York Times
firmly rooted Stuxnet in Israeli territory. It reported that the Dimona complex, “the heavily guarded heart of Israel’s never-acknowledged nuclear arms program,” had become “a critical testing ground in a joint American and Israeli effort to undermine Iran’s efforts to make a bomb of its own.”
Specifically, it went on, Israel had constructed at Dimona a centrifuge network “virtually identical to Iran’s at Natanz,” and used it to test and refine Stuxnet, which it called “the most sophisticated cyberweapon ever deployed.”
“To check out the worm, you have to know the machines,” it quoted an unnamed American expert on nuclear intelligence as saying. “The reason the worm has been effective is that the Israelis tried it out.”
So effective had Stuxnet proved, the Times
further reported, that it “appears to have wiped out roughly a fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges and helped delay, though not destroy, Teheran’s ability to make its first nuclear arms.”
Adding rich detail to what was already known of Stuxnet’s origins and capabilities, the article elaborated that, apart from accelerating the centrifuge motors to send them “spinning wildly out of control,” the virus “also secretly recorded what normal operations at the nuclear plant looked like, then played those readings back to plant operators, like a pre-recorded security tape in a bank heist, so that it would appear that everything was operating normally while the centrifuges were actually tearing themselves apart.”
Unsurprisingly, the Times
article was short on named sources for its information. It relied, it said, on “intelligence and military experts familiar” with the operations at Dimona. How remarkable that the Times
would produce an enormously detailed article on the dramatic impact of Stuxnet, based on information from experts “familiar” with the workings of Dimona, precisely when the outgoing head of the Mossad was uncharacteristically breaking cover to declare that Iran was still a good few years from the bomb. What a fortuitous coincidence.
IF STUXNET has indeed had the reported dramatic impact – and the Times
story went on to assert that “some experts who have examined the code believe it contains the seeds for yet more versions and assaults” – then plainly Iran has now been hit by a strike as potent as any military operation might have been. A spectacular blow achieved, moreover, without the potentially cataclysmic repercussions of a military attack.
When Israel blew up Saddam Hussein’s nuclear core at Osirak in 1981, the bombing wound up permanently thwarting his nuclear plans, but the working assessment here had been that it would only put the program out of action for a few years.
Where Iran is concerned, the limitations of a military attack are far greater: There is no certainty that the location of all key nuclear installations is known, and therefore vital facilities might not be targeted; it is widely assessed that Iran, unlike Saddam’s Iraq, would have the technological expertise to rebuild; and the regime, again in contrast to Saddam, would have an array of options – including missile fire, terrorism and utilization of Hamas and Hizbullah – to retaliate for any such attack.
In sum, that means the resort to a high risk military strike is in no way perceived as a panacea. Given that context, the reported success of Stuxnet – an invisible invader that has rendered Iran’s Osirak-inspired physical defenses completely irrelevant – is all the more dazzling and significant an achievement.
There is, it should be stressed, no comparing the smashed Iraqi and the virus-infected Iranian nuclear programs. Saddam was utterly reliant on overseas assistance, and was making a dash for the bomb when thwarted; Iran has painstakingly assembled domestic expertise and adopted a careful, gradual approach. It will not abandon that effort easily.
But the setback is more than practical. Stuxnet would appear to also be a huge psychological success.
Iran’s scientific boffins cannot have been too comfortable seeing colleagues bumped off in the streets of Teheran. An article in Der Spiegel
just this week, indeed, quoted Dagan as saying those killings had directly slowed the program, and sown fear within the Iranian nuclear scientists’ community. Many scientists, it reported Dagan as saying, had stayed away from work in the days after the assassinations. Iran’s showcased TV appearance last week by purported Mossad recruit Majid Jamali Fash, the self-confessed assassin of physicist Mohammadi, may have been intended to reassure Iranians, and especially Iranian scientists, that the regime had smashed the alleged Mossad ring of operatives, but it probably had the opposite effect – bringing home to potential Iranian targets how vulnerable they are in their own land. “The man widely believed to be responsible for much of Iran’s program, Mohsen Fakrizadeh, a college professor,” the Times
reported in its recent article, “has been hidden away by the Iranians, who know he is high on the target list.”
In this fevered climate, with colleagues dead or in hiding, Stuxnet must have drastically exacerbated the nuclear team’s concerns, sharply denting any certainties about attaining the nuclear goal.
No warplanes have targeted Iran’s nuclear sites. Instead, a stealth weapon of a far subtler nature has delivered a devastating payload. And its full impact is still unfolding.
Far from credibly peddling the sense that the bomb is a fait accompli, and that the rest of the world will have to live with, or rather capitulate to, a nuclear-emboldened Islamist Iran, the combination of sabotage and assassinations may now have left the regime with the opposite challenge on its hands: scrambling to persuade its own key scientists that they can do it.
IT WOULD be foolish, deeply so, to believe that thwarting Iran is now a
fait accompli either. The Iranians have shown ferocious tenacity in
pursuing their nuclear weapons goal thus far. They consider its
attainment to be transformative for their regional and even global
status. There are, as Dagan indicated on Monday, other avenues they can
follow. And they will not abandon the nuclear arms quest unless they
truly come to believe that its pursuit has become an imminent risk to
their very hold on power.
The onus, therefore, should now be on the international community, via
intensified economic pressure, to bring the regime to precisely that
realization. As Meir Dagan has signaled, and as the reports on Stuxnet
appear to confirm, Iran most certainly can be outwitted, pressured and
The balance has tilted.