US Foreign Policy

Covert Operations in Iran

in Program

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

  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


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





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