Small Wars

This Week at War: The Covert War Inside Iran

WikiLeaks reveal the U.S. reluctance to employ airpower against Iran. But are cyberattacks and covert assassinations any more effective?

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Image
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Image

Has a war on Iran already begun?

This week’s WikiLeaks release of State Department cables highlightedthe growing concerns of numerous Sunni Arabs leaders over Iran’s nuclear program. Bahrain’s king, for instance, pleaded to a U.S. diplomat that the Iranian nuclear program "must be stopped." In another leaked cable, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia supposedly implored the United States to "cut of the head of the snake" (presumably referring to the government in Tehran) before it was too late.

But how to stop the Iranian nuclear program? In yet another leaked cable, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates dismissed the traditional way, an air campaign, concluding that it "would only delay Iranian plans by one to three years, while unifying the Iranian people to be forever embittered against the attacker." Left unsaid by Gates, but no doubt at the front of his mind, are the bitter consequences of the U.S. military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. For its efforts in these two very visible wars, the United States spent a huge fortune, lost thousands of soldiers and earned opprobrium from many quarters of the world. It is little wonder why Gates would be quick to find a reason to avoid yet another military commitment.

But Iran also seems to be under assault from a different kind of warfare. First was the arrival of Stuxnet, a highly sophisticated malware worm specifically designed to attack machinery produced by Siemens Corporation, a German industrial conglomerate. According to FPRI, a think-tank in Philadelphia, Stuxnet (introduced into Iran’s nuclear program by an infiltrator wielding a USB flash drive) targets Siemens-designed Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems. Some anonymous adversary has apparently concluded that Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities, archetypes of large-scale industrial processes, are highly suitable candidates for this type of cyber attack.

Iran’s nuclear program is also under attack from another very old-fashioned method: the anonymous assassin. This week one high-level Iranian nuclear scientist was killed and another wounded when they were attacked by assassins on motorcycles who attached bombs to their cars. In January, another Iranian nuclear scientist was killed by a bomb.

This covert war — involving assassinations, cyber-sabotage, and perhaps other measures yet to be revealed — will, like Gates’s conclusion about air strikes, only delay Iran’s nuclear program. Iran will adjust by neutralizing Stuxnet, providing better protection for its remaining nuclear scientists, and replacing its human losses with new physics graduates. The anonymous adversary will likely find it increasingly difficult to penetrate Iranian security now that those forces are on alert.

Is this covert war worth the bother? It is likely achieving the same delay that an air campaign would have achieved but without the massive diplomatic and economic consequences of an overt preventive war. For the worried anonymous adversary, that isn’t nothing. But a strategy of delay is necessarily attached to a vague hope that something fortuitous inside Iran will occur while the covert delaying attacks proceed. In this case, the adage "hope is not a plan" was never more true. When the anonymous attacker reaches the last page in his covert action playbook, the air campaign operations order will still be looking down from the bookshelf.

U.S.-Russian negotiations over New START are not over

Momentum may be building for quick Senate ratification of the New START nuclear arms treaty with Russia. According to the New York Times on Nov. 30, Republican Senators John McCain and George Voinovich are now publicly in favor of the pact, joining their Republican colleague Sen. Richard Lugar. An op-ed on Dec. 2 urging ratification in the Washington Post, written by five former Republican secretaries of state, combined with similar sentiments from several Eastern European leaders, may help President Barack Obama find the six additional Republican votes he will need for passage.

Obama and the Senate will no doubt view a successful ratification vote as the end of the long treaty-making process. But with New START, that will not be the case. Indeed, it will soon become apparent that even after ratification, tense negotiations with Russia over the treaty will continue. Parties to treaties frequently have disputes over implementation. When it comes to New START’s implications for missile defense in Europe, disputes over interpretation between the United States and Russia will be especially large and contentious.

In interviews this week, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin both issued warnings concerning missile defense cooperation with the West. Putin declared that a U.S. failure to accept Russia’s proposals on a joint missile defense effort would lead to a new arms race, a threat that would seemingly conflict with New START’s limits on offensive weapons. Medvedev echoed Putin, warning that a failure to reach an agreement on missile defense would result in Russia deploying "new means to attack."

While the two Russian leaders issued these alarms, Obama administration officials have repeatedly assured Republican senators that New START has no bearing on the Defense Department’s plans for missile defense deployments. In testimony on Dec. 1 to the House Armed Services Committee’s strategic forces subcommittee, James Miller, the Pentagon’s principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, explained that the administration’s "phased adaptive approach" to missile defense in Europe will quickly stand up defenses against immediate shorter-range missile threats, while simultaneously providing the flexibility to integrate new technologies and achieve cooperation with Russian missile defense requests.

But Miller’s description of the proposed system for Europe remains vague. Phase one of the plan calls for a deployment of a required sensor (presumably a powerful X-band radar) at a still unspecified place "in southern Europe." The administration cannot be more specific right now about the architecture of the system because of Russian sensitivities over the intrusive radars the missile defense system requires. Now would be the worst time for a blow-up with Russia over missile defense radars in Europe, just as the administration needs six more Republican votes for New START.

But the administration’s current need to be vague on its European missile defense plan only highlights the gap between the United States and Russia over what the new treaty means for missile defense. The two sides still have a long negotiation ahead over what will constitute an acceptable U.S. and NATO plan for European missile defense. As these negotiations proceed, the Russians will hold hostage their continued participation in New START. Even if the Senate ratifies the treaty, the negotiations are far from over.

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