Cheering on our invisible heroes in Iran

A staple in each of the various invisible man movies is the scene in which our phantom hero pokes and smacks and hurls things at a bewildered bad guy. The confused target of his attack ends up being humiliated even as he helplessly lashes out and is then defeated. Recalling this, you can probably understand ...

Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images
Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images
Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

A staple in each of the various invisible man movies is the scene in which our phantom hero pokes and smacks and hurls things at a bewildered bad guy. The confused target of his attack ends up being humiliated even as he helplessly lashes out and is then defeated. Recalling this, you can probably understand how the Iranian government feels these days.

Steadily, insistently, and with devastating effectiveness over the course of the past couple years, Iran has seen nuclear scientists blown up, explosions at key research facilities, and cyberattacks that set back their efforts to develop nuclear weapons. It is impossible for anyone to publicly assert or prove that each and every one of these incidents has been part of an orchestrated covert campaign to slow Iran's progress toward an atom bomb. But there are two things we can say. The cumulative effect of these incidents has been much as one might hope to achieve with such a covert campaign. And the Iranians thus far have proven powerless to stop the attacks.

A staple in each of the various invisible man movies is the scene in which our phantom hero pokes and smacks and hurls things at a bewildered bad guy. The confused target of his attack ends up being humiliated even as he helplessly lashes out and is then defeated. Recalling this, you can probably understand how the Iranian government feels these days.

Steadily, insistently, and with devastating effectiveness over the course of the past couple years, Iran has seen nuclear scientists blown up, explosions at key research facilities, and cyberattacks that set back their efforts to develop nuclear weapons. It is impossible for anyone to publicly assert or prove that each and every one of these incidents has been part of an orchestrated covert campaign to slow Iran’s progress toward an atom bomb. But there are two things we can say. The cumulative effect of these incidents has been much as one might hope to achieve with such a covert campaign. And the Iranians thus far have proven powerless to stop the attacks.

The government in Tehran has responded in much the same way the befuddled victim of the invisible man inevitably does. They have lashed out in all directions, looking ever more confused and helpless. They deny the attacks are happening.  They say they are accidents, coincidences. They step up their rhetoric against those who they feel may be behind the efforts. They offer blustering speeches. As of today, they direct their rent-a-thug squads at the British Embassy (pictured above), offering chants and vandalism as the latest sure signs of their impotence.

Meanwhile, in the West, pundits argue that you can’t attack Iran, can’t make it harder for them to develop a nuclear program without an impossibly costly war. While it may ultimately be impossible to stop Iran using the current combination of diplomatic initiatives and covert missions alone, it is also undeniable that to the extent that at least some of the incidents in Iran (such as Stuxnet, for example) are certainly the work of Western intelligence services, the current mix is having an effect — without actually being a big-time, Hollywood production, name-above-the-title, shock-and-awe invasion or protracted bombing campaign. And if, as it appears, that effect is at least to squeeze the Ahmadinejad regime and impede its progress while all the while making it look bad in the eyes of both its restive populace and its friends and enemies throughout the region, then credit must go to those behind the efforts.

We who observe are left in much the same position as a bystander witnessing an attack by the Invisible Man on some villain. We’re not quite sure what we’re seeing or why it is happening but we can’t help but cheer the results so far and hope that in the end stealth triumphs (or stealth, plus diplomacy, plus a clear understanding that President Obama means it when he says that the United States and our allies will not allow Iran to successfully develop a nuclear weapons program).

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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