Buying time

February 25, 2011

The Obama administration has concluded that Iran’s nuclear program has been slowed by a combination of sanctions, sabotage and Iran’s own technical troubles. Because of the delay, U.S. officials see what one describes as “a little bit of space” before any military showdown with Iran.

Israeli officials, too, see more time on the clock. Moshe Yaalon, Israel’s deputy prime minister, noted the Iranian slowdown in a Dec. 29 interview with Israel Radio and said the West has up to three years to stop Tehran from making a bomb.

“These [Iranian] difficulties slow the timeline, of course,” said Yaalon, a former Israeli defense chief. And last Thursday, outgoing Mossad chief Meir Dagan told Israeli reporters that Iran couldn’t build a bomb before 2015 at the earliest, in part because of unspecified “measures that have been deployed against them.”

A senior Obama administration official gave me a similar account of Iran’s troubles. “They’re not moving as fast as we had feared a year ago,” he said.

This new assessment of Iran’s nuclear setbacks has lowered the temperature on what had been 2010’s hottest strategic issue. Last summer, Jerusalem and Washington were talking themselves into a war fever, prompted in part by a powerful article in the Atlantic by Jeffrey Goldberg that starkly described the likelihood of military action. This fever seems to have broken.

What’s increasingly clear is that low-key weapons — covert sabotage and economic sanctions — are accomplishing many of the benefits of military action, without the costs. It’s a devious approach — all the more so because it’s accompanied by near-constant U.S. proposals of diplomatic dialogue — but in that sense, it matches Iran’s own operating style of pursuing multiple options at once.

Officials won’t discuss the clandestine program of cyberattack and other sabotage being waged against the Iranian nuclear program. Yet we see the effects — in crashing centrifuges and reduced operations of the Iranian enrichment facility at Natanz — but don’t understand the causes. That’s the way covert action is supposed to work.

The most direct confirmation that sabotage has paid off came from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who said in November that the Stuxnet computer virus had damaged the Natanz operation. “They succeeded in creating problems for a limited number of our centrifuges with the software they had installed in electronic parts,” he said.

A fascinating (and remarkably detailed) account of the Stuxnet attack was published Dec. 22 by the Institute for Science and International Security. The study described how the virus was targeted to attack a key electronic control in the centrifuges, known as a “frequency converter,” so that the spin of the rotors was increased and slowed in a way that would cause a malfunction.

According to the ISIS report, the virus may have been introduced in early or mid 2009. By late 2009 or early 2010, the study said, Iran decommissioned and replaced about 1,000 centrifuges — far more than normal breakage. The virus hid its electronic tracks, but an analysis by the security firm Symantec showed that the code included the term “DEADFOO7,” which could refer to the aviation term for a dead engine and also be a play on James Bond’s fictional code name.

Stuxnet was just one of what appeared to have been a series of efforts to disrupt the supply chain of the Iranian nuclear program. “Such overt and covert disruption activities have had significant effect in slowing Iran’s centrifuge program,” concluded the ISIS.

The delays in the Iranian program are important because they add strategic warning time for the West to respond to any Iranian push for a bomb. U.S. officials estimate that if Iran were to try a “break out” by enriching uranium at Natanz to the 90 percent level needed for a bomb, that move (requiring reconfiguration of the centrifuges) would be detectable — and it would take Iran one to two more years to make a bomb.

The Iranians could try what U.S. officials call a “sneak out” at a secret enrichment facility like the one they constructed near Qom. They would have to use their poorly performing (and perhaps still Stuxnet-infected) old centrifuges or an unproven new model. Alternative enrichment technologies, such as lasers or a heavy-water reactor, don’t appear feasible for Iran now, officials say. Foreign technology from Russia and other suppliers has been halted, and the Iranians can’t build the complex hardware (such as a “pressure vessel” needed for the heavy-water reactor) on their own.

The Obama administration keeps holding the door open for negotiations, and another round is scheduled this month in Istanbul. But the real news is that Tehran has technical problems — bringing sighs of relief (and a few mischievous smiles) in the West.

davidignatius@washpost.com

davidignatius@washpost.com

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.
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