Whenever anything untoward happens to Iran’s nuclear program – be it a computer worm causing centrifuges to run haywire or the assassination of a nuclear scientist – ex-military or intelligence officials will inevitably take to the radio waves to say that at best the action will only delay Iran’s nuclear march; it won’t stop it.
So, too, on Monday, after foreign reports implicated Israel as being behind an explosion that caused a blackout in the Natanz nuclear facility a day earlier, various ex-officials spoke about how the move might temporarily hobble the Iranian nuclear program, but not cripple it.
An electric outage disrupting the power system running centrifuges is not fighter planes coming out of the western sky and dropping a payload that destroys a nuclear facility, ala the Osirak reactor in Iran in 1981, or the reactor at Deir al-Zor in Syria in 2007.
But actions like the ones taken on Sunday should not be underestimated. They may not knock out Iran’s nuclear capacity, but they set the clock back – they buy time – and that is not insignificant.
Iran has been on an inexorable march toward nuclear capabilities since the end of the Iraqi war in the 1980s.
After the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, accepted UN Security Council Resolution 598 in 1988 that put an end to the eight-year, blood-drenched Iran-Iraq war, the country’s race toward nuclear capabilities began in earnest. Khomeini saw the acceptance of the ceasefire as an Iranian capitulation, famously likened it to drinking from a “poisoned chalice” and concluded that had Tehran had nuclear arms at the time, it would not have needed to accept the UN terms.
In the ensuing 33 years, the Iranians have still not been able to get the bomb. That they haven’t gotten it is not because Iran is any less capable, effective and efficient than any of the other countries that have nuclear capabilities – including Pakistan, India, Russia, China or America. They haven’t gotten it because they haven’t been able to and because they have been prevented from doing so.
What has prevented them? Diplomacy, sanctions and – yes – small-bore actions that have enabled the world to kick the can down the road, buying time in the hope that either the regime of the ayatollahs will fall – much as the Soviet Union eventually fell – or that the current regime will just come to the conclusion that it is not worth its while to pursue nuclear weapons and that the cost is prohibitive and outweighs the benefits.
Steps like the ones taken Sunday at the Natanz facility that caused damage to centrifuges do set the Iranian nuclear program back – if not years, then at least a number of months. But all of these months caused by numerous disruptions over the years eventually add up.
Various experts in Israel and abroad have for almost the last four decades been warning that Iran would get the bomb in just a number of years, if not months.
In 1984, Jane’s Defense Weekly quoted a West German intelligence source as saying that Iran’s production of a bomb was entering its final stages, and US senator Alan Cranston said the Islamic Republic was just seven years away.
In 1992, then-foreign minister Shimon Peres told French TV that Iran would have nuclear warheads by 1999.
In 1995, John Holum, director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, said Iran might be able to produce a nuclear bomb by 2003.
In 1995, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then only a Likud MK, said Iran was three to five years from being able to produce a nuclear weapon.
In 1996, Peres – at that time prime minister – said Iran would likely go nuclear in four years.
In 2003, a Knesset committee was told Iran would have the materials needed to build a bomb by 2005.
In 2005, the Mossad adjusted its forecast by a few years, and in 2006, IDF Intelligence forecast a nuclear Iran by 2010.
Briefings were held with diplomatic and military correspondents in the first decade of the 21st century every two years, saying that Iran would cross the nuclear threshold in the next two years. In 2000, officials said 2002; in 2002, they said 2004; in 2004, the date was pushed off until 2006, and on and on.
At a certain point in time, after hearing these forecasts for so long, one asks oneself what is happening. Either those doing the briefings are just crying wolf and lying, or the Iranians are trying their level-best to get it, have tried to get it, but were simply unable to do so – not because they were not smart or competent, but rather because things were happening that were preventing them from doing so.
Like computer viruses (Stuxnet) sent to infect Iranian computers.
Like the death or assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists: Five died or were killed from 2007-2012, and the father of the Iranian nuclear program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was assassinated last year.
Like straw companies set up around the world selling faulty material to the Iranians, so that when they spun their centrifuges, the centrifuges would malfunction.
And that is all the activity that has taken place aboveground, detected by the radar screen, activity that has been reported on and in some instances – but not all – attributed to Israel. One can only imagine what has happened below the radar screen that the public does not know about.
Israel, especially Netanyahu, but not only the prime minister, has said going back more than 30 years that Israel will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons. Whenever this is stated, the mind races to previous Israeli efforts to prevent enemy countries from getting nuclear capabilities: Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007. And in each of those cases, the nuclear designs were snuffed out by planes attacking from the air.
But who says that a nuclear program has to be wiped out in one fell swoop? And who says it has to happen from the air?
Only the unimaginative fight the next war like they did the last. While Israel might lack many things, it does not lack imagination. And if Western intelligence sources are to be believed, some of that imagination was on display Sunday deep in the bowels of Iran’s underground nuclear facility in Natanz.