On Iran, No Magic Bullet

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits the uranium enrichment facility in Natanz in April 2008.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits the uranium enrichment facility in Natanz in April 2008. (The Iranian President's Office Via Associated Press)
  Enlarge Photo    
By David Ignatius
Sunday, May 24, 2009

When U.S. and Israeli officials say that "all options are on the table" for stopping Iran from gaining nuclear weapons, that's usually taken to mean aerial bombardment of Iranian nuclear sites at Natanz and other locations.

But there is another option for impeding the Iranian program -- a covert campaign to disrupt and deceive Iran's nuclear establishment. Despite the secrecy surrounding such efforts, reports about Israeli and U.S. sabotage efforts have surfaced recently in newspaper stories, which undoubtedly have been read with interest in Tehran.

These published reports raise an interesting question: Do secret sabotage programs offer a "magic bullet" for dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat -- raising the cost to Iran of pursuing its program, while avoiding the chaotic backlash that would follow a conventional military strike?

The answer, I'm afraid, is no. It's pretty clear these covert programs have been tried, but it's also pretty clear they haven't halted Iran's march toward mastery of the technologies necessary to produce a nuclear weapon.

The rationale for a sabotage program against Iran is obvious enough. Here's how one former CIA officer lays out the case, in theory: "A nuclear program is technically complex, requires a lot of precision materials, a steady flow of technical parts, and is inherently dangerous. Accidental fires, mechanical mishaps with equipment, technical failures, etc. slow the program, and most importantly, at some point will increase counterintelligence concern from within Iran."

The latest story about sabotage appeared May 16 in the Wall Street Journal in an op-ed by Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, "Israel's Secret War With Iran." Bergman reported that when Gen. Meir Dagan was named director of Israel's intelligence service in 2002, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told him to build "a Mossad with a knife between its teeth." Dagan's chief target was Iran, according to Bergman, who is a reporter for the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth.

"The results have been tremendous," wrote Bergman. "During the last four years, the uranium enrichment project in Iran was delayed by a series of apparent accidents: the disappearance of an Iranian nuclear scientist, the crash of two planes carrying cargo relating to the project, and two labs that burst into flames."

Israeli officials describe Bergman as a well-informed reporter whose stories, in the words of one official, are "not totally made up." An Israeli source tells me that there has indeed been a disruption effort, in which the Israelis managed to penetrate the Iranian supply chain in at least three countries and introduce bogus equipment. But this source cautions that Bergman's claims of "tremendous" success are overstated.

My guru on Israeli intelligence is Yossi Melman, a columnist for Haaretz who has written several books on the Mossad. He says that Dagan did, indeed, make a commitment to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons after he took over Mossad, expressing that determination in a letter to the chiefs of other Israeli intelligence services. But Melman thinks that this covert effort has had only limited success. Whatever setbacks the Iranians experienced along the way, they have been able to keep moving.

"I don't think Mossad is capable of mobilizing a massive sabotage campaign that would halt the Iranian program," Melman told me last week.

U.S. sabotage efforts have been chronicled by David Sanger of the New York Times, in several news stories and in his recent book, "The Inheritance." Here's what Sanger wrote in a front-page story on Jan. 11: "The covert American program, started in early 2008, includes renewed American efforts to penetrate Iran's supply chain abroad, along with new efforts, some of them experimental, to undermine electrical systems, computer systems and other networks on which Iran relies. It is aimed at delaying the day that Iran can produce the weapons-grade fuel and designs it needs to produce a workable nuclear weapon."

But we have to be frank: The quiet, deniable covert activities undertaken so far haven't stopped the Iranian program, and they're not likely to do so in the future. There is no magic bullet. The best hope of stopping Iran from making a bomb is diplomacy, backed by the threat of tough sanctions, backed by the ultimate threat of overt military power.

The writer is co-host of PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company