Covert Operations in Iran

December 30, 2010

By Carrielyn O'Connell - Iran's nuclear program has led the international community to fear that Iran is seeking, and may acquire in a few years, a nuclear weapon capability. The US and its allies have sought to engage Iran diplomatically on the issue, but neither diplomacy nor sanctions have so far succeeded in persuading Iran to halt its program.  Some have suggested that the US should destroy the Iranian program through military action, but such a unilateral action could have severe military, political, and economic repercussions.  Covert actions may provide an alternative, a means of influencing the progress of Iran's nuclear program while avoiding the negative consequences of overt action.   Covert operations would not be intended to stop Iran's enrichment program; they are aimed at slowing it so that other strategies, such as sanctions and diplomacy, can have time to take effect . According to journalists, several types of covert actions may have been utilized in Iran already, including industrial sabotage, the enticement of defectors, and the support of opposition groups .

 Covert actions are intended to influence political, economic or military conditions abroad while keeping the role of the United States Government secret and plausibly deniable. Such actions are appealing in situations in which diplomacy alone is ineffective, yet sending in military forces is undesirable. They provide presidents a third option by which they can influence events without being held accountable for doing so. The nuclear situation in Iran is an appealing prospect for covert efforts.

Covert sabotage operations exploit Iran's need to buy nuclear components both through commercial channels and on the black market. Iran's access to needed items provides cover for covert operations to feed Iran faulty equipment to set back their uranium enrichment program. Trade in dual-use items, which can be used for both peaceful and military purposes, is strictly regulated by the international community through the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and additional restrictions have been imposed on Iranian purchases by the UN sanctions.  As a result, Iran has increasingly had to turn to the black market to purchase critical items. By its nature, the identity of buyers and sellers on the black market is often murky.  Covert operatives have attempted to feed Iran faulty equipment to sabotage their uranium enrichment program. 

Evidence of successful sabotage efforts include an explosion at Iran's Natanz enrichment facility in April 2006, caused by a manipulated power supply imported through Turkey, which resulted in fifty centrifuges being destroyed and set back Iran's enrichment program. Additional evidence of suspected sabotage operations in Iran include: the 2007 discovery of flawed insulation units used in connections between centrifuges purchased on the black market;  the 2008 hanging of Ali Ashtari, an Iranian businessman who confessed to importing faulty equipment into Iran;  and the Stuxnet computer virus, which targets frequency converter drives to sabotage gas centrifuges, and was discovered in 2010 to have infected computers at some Iranian nuclear facilities. 

High-quality vacuum pumps, crucial for uranium enrichment as centrifuges must operate inside a vacuum seal, have also been the target of sabotage attempts. If a vacuum in a centrifuge breaks, hundreds of centrifuges can be destroyed. In 2008, Urs Tinner, a Swiss engineer who is suspected of selling high-quality vacuum pumps to Iran, admitted to being a CIA asset.   The latest IAEA report says that of the 8,528 centrifuges installed at Natanz, only 3,936 are being operated, which is not only a 20 percent reduction from the 4,920 centrifuges operating in May 2009, but it also leaves 4,592 centrifuges sitting idle.   While there is no evidence linking the idle centrifuges to sabotage, it would be in Iran's interest to produce as much uranium as fast as they can, before the US or Israel decides to destroy the facility by force, raising the question of why thousands of the centrifuges are idle. 

 It is no secret that Iran's enrichment program has suffered from technical difficulties. While these difficulties may not all have been a direct result of sabotage, they are possible indirect consequences of it. If the Iranian government believes that nations are undertaking efforts to manipulate components it procures, they may attempt to produce parts themselves. These in-house products would most likely be of lower quality than those produced abroad.    Such faulty equipment could lead to the malfunctions and breakdowns Iran has experienced, delaying enrichment.  The belief that Iran is the target of covert sabotage attempts also could lead the Iranian government to spend extra time closely inspecting all imported material; the 2006 sabotage resulted in such an increase in inspections.     This would likewise delay the enrichment process. 

  Covert actions, though controversial, may have provided time for the international community to pursue both diplomacy and sanctions in its attempt to persuade the Iranian government to reconsider its nuclear policy. Mark Fitzpatrick, who has watched the Iranian program closely, believes that covert operations have been successful, "in impeding Iran's drive toward getting as close to nuclear weapons as possible."  However, Iran's ability to domestically produce nuclear components will improve reducing Iran's reliance on imported instruments and therefore the opportunities for sabotage of imported parts. The recent Stuxnet virus has demonstrated the possibility of cyber sabotage as a way to stall Iran's nuclear program in the future. As the cyber domain is yet undefined in international security, setting the precedent of covert cyber attacks as a policy tool may not be in the best interest of the United States.


Photo Credit:  Cascade of gas centrifuges used to produce enriched uranium in Ohio, 1984. (US DOE # 1000682)





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