For years now, a concerted covert U.S. campaign of cyber-terrorism, commercial sabotage, targeted assassinations, and proxy wars has apparently been under way in Iran.
From June 2009 to May 2010 a computer virus called Stuxnet was unleashed on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The widely publicized cyber-attack aimed at obstructing Iran’s nuclear enrichment was “precisely calibrated” to “send nuclear centrifuges wildly out of control.” The industrial equipment used in Iran’s enrichment facilities at Natanz has been identified by American intelligence agencies as the product of a German company called Siemens. The United States is reported to have cooperated with Siemens to develop the Stuxnet virus, which was first developed and tested in Israel before being targeted at Iran’s facilities.
“Countries or individuals that engage in cyber attacks,” Hillary Clinton said in a speech on Internet freedom in January 2010, “should face consequences and international condemnation.” She added that “an attack on one nation’s networks can be an attack on all.” Even as U.S. officials strongly condemn cyber warfare, it remains a primary aspect of this covert war, as new cyber attacks against Iran are discovered.
Cyber attacks aren’t the only tactic in the secret war on Iran. David Albright, head of the Institute for Science and International Security, told National Public Radio that the U.S. government has been buying nuclear-enrichment equipment on the open market, sabotaging it, and delivering it to front companies who then sell it to the Iranian government.
But despite hostile rhetoric, Iran has been largely compliant (with some disagreement, mostly in emphasis) with its obligations under the NPT and IAEA restrictions. If Iran’s behavior merits secret attacks, then it is unnerving to think what U.S. behavior merits, as the U.S. government has helped at least two countries get nuclear weapons in violation of international law.
This war is fought not only with software bugs and fraud, but also with outright violence. In January of last year, “a remote-controlled bomb attached to a motorcycle killed an Iranian physics professor outside his home in north Tehran.” Then in November, the stakes were raised when two of Iran’s top nuclear scientists were assassinated by “unidentified assailants riding motorcycles.” One of those slain, Majid Shahriari, was “an expert on neutron transport, a field that lies at the heart of nuclear chain reactions in bombs and reactors,” while the other, Fereydoon Abbasi, was “on the United Nations Security Council’s sanctions list for ties to the Iranian nuclear effort.”
The United States may also be playing the spy game. See this excerpt from a recent NPR exposé:
Two years ago, Shahram Amiri, a young Iranian nuclear scientist, vanished in Saudi Arabia. For months, nothing was heard of him. Then information surfaced that he had defected to the CIA and had provided the United States with crucial information about a secret nuclear site in Iran.
Last year, Amiri undefected: He surfaced, declaring that he had been a prisoner of the CIA and that he wanted to go home. And so he did. …
Amiri was believed to be an agent-in-place for the CIA, who then decided he wanted out of Iran. In the U.S., it appears, he got cold feet and then made his way back to Iran. There he was initially hailed as a hero, but months later he was jailed. Now he is on trial for treason.
Direct, tangible evidence of these actions being carried out by the U.S. government is not available, but they coincide with public pronouncements as well as reported leaks about major escalations of covert operations against Iran. “These operations,” reported The New Yorker back in 2008, “for which the President [Bush] sought up to four hundred million dollars, were described in a Presidential Finding signed by Bush.” In addition to supporting Iranian dissidents and disgruntled minority groups to act against the regime, the U.S. had for years been sending in CIA agents and the Joint Special Operations Command—the same elite military unit that raided Osama bin Laden’s compound and killed him—on the ground to capture or kill “high-value targets” and subvert Iran’s nuclear program. No authorization for the use of military force was requested of Congress.
In May 2010, Gen. David Petraeus signed a secret directive that authorized “the sending of American Special Operations troops to both friendly and hostile nations” in a “broad expansion of clandestine military activity” aiming to “disrupt militant groups or counter threats in Iran,” among other countries.
Aggressive policies of the United States toward Iran have some potential to deprive the Iranian people of much-needed reforms. In the wake of the Arab Spring, the Iranian government is likely to also face “the wrath of the people” and a push for democratic reforms, and these hostile covert operations against Iran may portend a strengthening of the regime in opposition to the much-feared U.S. government.
The Obama administration is busy continuing and in some aspects revamping its predecessor’s policies toward Iran. These are bad enough on their own. But if they also end up sapping the chances for a democratic revolution in Iran, yet another Middle Eastern dictatorship will be indebted to U.S. policy.