COMMUTING to work in Tehran is never easy, but it is particularly nerve-racking these days for the scientists of Shahid Beheshti University. It was a little less than a year ago when one of them, Majid Shahriari, and his wife were stuck in traffic at 7:40 a.m. and a motorcycle pulled up alongside the car. There was a faint “click” as a magnet attached to the driver’s side door. The huge explosion came a few seconds later, killing him and injuring his wife.
On the other side of town, 20 minutes later, a nearly identical attack played out against Mr. Shahriari’s colleague Fereydoon Abbasi, a nuclear scientist and longtime member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Perhaps because of his military training, Mr. Abbasi recognized what was happening, and pulled himself and his wife out the door just before his car turned into a fireball. Iran has charged that Israel was behind the attacks — and many outsiders believe the “sticky bombs” are the hallmarks of a Mossad hit.
Perhaps to make a point, Mr. Abbasi, now recovered from his injuries, has been made the director of Iran’s atomic energy program. He travels the world offering assurances that Iran’s interest in nuclear weapons is peaceful.
Even for the Iranian scientists who get to work safely, life isn’t a lot easier. A confidential study circulating through America’s national laboratories estimates that the Stuxnet computer worm — the most sophisticated cyberweapon ever deployed against another country’s infrastructure — slowed Iran’s nuclear progress by one to two years. Now it has run its course. But there is no reason to believe the attacks are over.
Iran may be the most challenging test of the Obama administration’s focus on new, cheap technologies that could avoid expensive boots on the ground; drones are the most obvious, cyberweapons the least discussed. It does not quite add up to a new Obama Doctrine, but the methods are defining a new era of nearly constant confrontation and containment. Drones are part of a tactic to keep America’s adversaries off balance and preoccupied with defending themselves. And in the past two and a half years, they have been used more aggressively than ever. There are now five or six secret American drone bases around the world. Some recently discovered new computer worms suggest that a new, improved Stuxnet 2.0 may be in the works for Iran.
“There were a lot of mistakes made the first time,” said an American official, avoiding any acknowledgment that the United States played a role in the cyber attack on Iran. “This was a first-generation product. Think of Edison’s initial light bulbs, or the Apple II.”
Not surprisingly, the Iranians are refusing to sit back and take it — which is one reason many believe the long shadow war with Iran is about to ramp up dramatically. At the White House and the C.I.A., officials say the recently disclosed Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States — by blowing up a tony Georgetown restaurant frequented by senators, lobbyists and journalists — was just the tip of the iceberg. American intelligence officials now believe that the death of a Saudi diplomat in Pakistan earlier this year was an assassination. And they see evidence of other plots by the Quds Force, the most elite Iranian military unit, from Yemen to Latin America.
“The Saudi plot was clumsy, and we got lucky,” another American official who has reviewed the intelligence carefully said recently. “But we are seeing increasingly sophisticated Iranian activity like it, all around the world.” Much of this resembles the worst days of the cold war, when Americans and Soviets were plotting against each other — and killing each other — in a now hazy attempt to preserve an upper hand. But Iran is no superpower. And there are reasons to wonder whether, in the end, this shadow war is simply going to delay the inevitable: an Iranian bomb or, more likely, an Iranian capability to assemble a fairly crude weapon in a matter of weeks or months.
For understandable reasons, this is a question no one in the Obama administration will answer publicly. To admit that Iran may ultimately get a weapon is to admit failure; both George W. Bush and Barack Obama vowed they would never let Iran achieve nuclear arms capability, much less a bomb. Israelis have long argued that if Iran got too close, that could justify attacking Iran’s nuclear sites. Reports in Israel last week suggested that such a pre-emptive attack is once again being debated.
The worries focus on renewed hints from top Israeli officials that they will act unilaterally — even over American objections — if they judge that Iran is getting too close to a bomb. (It is worth noting that they have made similar noises every year since 2005, save for a brief hiatus when Stuxnet — which appears to have been a joint project of American and Israeli intelligence — was doing its work.)
To many members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government — and, by the accounts of his former colleagues, to the Israeli leader himself — the Iran problem is 1939 all over again, an “existential threat.”
“WHEN Bibi talks about an existential threat,” one senior Israeli official said of Mr. Netanyahu recently, “he means the kind of threat the United States believed it faced when you believed the Nazis could get the bomb.”
Israelis worry that as Iran feels more isolated by sanctions and more threatened by the Arab Spring, which has not exactly broken Tehran’s way, it may view racing for a bomb as the only way to restore itself to its position as the most influential power in the Middle East. The fate of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi may strengthen that impulse.
“One should ask: would Europe have intervened in Libya if Qaddafi had possessed nuclear weapons?” the Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, said on army radio last week, referring to the Libyan leader’s decision to give up his program in 2003. “Would the U.S. have toppled Saddam Hussein if he had nuclear weapons?”
To many in the Obama administration, though, the Iranian threat seems more akin to 1949, when the Soviets tested their first nuclear device. That brought many confrontations that veered toward catastrophe, most notably the Cuban Missile Crisis. But ultimately the Soviets were contained. Inside the Pentagon and the National Security Council, there is a lot of work — all of it unacknowledged — about what a parallel containment strategy for Iran might look like.
The early elements of it are obvious: the antimissile batteries that the United States has spent billions of dollars installing on the territory of Arab allies, and a new Pentagon plan to put more ships and antimissile batteries into the Persian Gulf, in cooperation with six Arab states led by Saudi Arabia. It was the Saudi king who famously advised American diplomats in the cables revealed by WikiLeaks last year that the only Iran strategy that would work was one that “cut off the head of the snake.”
The big hitch in these containment strategies is that they are completely useless if Iran ever slips a bomb, or even some of its newly minted uranium fuel, to a proxy — Hezbollah, Hamas or some other terrorist group — raising the problem of ascertaining a bomb’s return address. When the Obama administration ran some tabletop exercises soon after coming to office, it was shocked to discover that the science of nuclear forensics was nowhere near as good in practice as it was on television dramas. So if a bomb went off in some American city, or in Riyadh or Tel Aviv, it could be weeks or months before it was ever identified as Iranian. Even then, confidence in the conclusion, officials say, might be too low for the president to order retaliation.
The wisdom of a containment strategy has also taken a hit since the revelation of the plot to kill the Saudi ambassador. Emerging from a classified briefing on the plot, a member of Congress said what struck him was that “this thing could have gotten Iran into a war, and yet we don’t know who ordered it.” There is increasing talk that it could have been a rogue element within the Quds Force. If so, what does that say about whether the Iranian leadership has as good a hand on the throttle of Iran’s nuclear research program as Washington has long assumed?
That issue may well come to a head this week after the International Atomic Energy Agency, the nuclear watchdog that has been playing a cat-and-mouse game with Iran’s nuclear establishment for a decade now, issues what may be one of its toughest reports ever.
IF the leaks are an accurate predictor of the final product, the report will describe in detail the evidence the I.A.E.A. has amassed suggesting that Iran has conducted tests on nuclear trigger devices, wrestled with designs that can miniaturize a nuclear device into the small confines of a warhead, and conducted abstruse experiments to spark a nuclear reaction. Most likely, the agency will stop short of accusing Iran of running a bomb program; instead, it will use the evidence to demand answers that it has long been refused about what it delicately calls “possible military dimensions” of the nuclear program.
Much of the work on those “possible military dimensions” is done, the I.A.E.A. believes, by scientists who have day jobs at Iran’s major universities, including one just across the street from what is believed to be the nuclear project’s administrative center. Among the scientists was Mr. Abbasi, the survivor of last November’s bomb attack, who was named in 2007 to the United Nations’ list of Iranian scientists subject to travel bans and economic sanctions because they were believed to be central to the bomb-development effort.
Mr. Abbasi, according to people familiar with the I.A.E.A.’s investigation, worked on calculations on increasing the yield of nuclear explosions, among other problems in manufacturing a weapon. He was a key scientist in the Iranian covert nuclear weapons program headed by Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, an academic and strong supporter of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. For the past decade, Mr. Fakhrizadeh has run programs — with names like “Project 110” and “Project 5,” they seem right out of a James Bond movie — that the West believes are a shell game hiding weapons work. Suspicions have been heightened by Iran’s refusal to allow him or his colleagues to be interviewed by the United Nations’ nuclear inspection teams. And since last year’s attacks — and another this past summer — Mr. Fakhrizadeh has gone completely underground.
No one expects the United Nations’ revelations of the evidence to prompt more action against Iran. Most governments have had access to this evidence for a while. The Iranians will say it is all fabrication, and because the agency will not reveal its sources, that charge could stick. The Chinese and the Russians have already protested to the I.A.E.A. head, Yukiya Amano, that revealing the evidence will harden Iran’s position. They oppose any new sanctions.
While the Obama administration may act unilaterally to shut down transactions with Iran’s central bank, officials concede that the only economic step that could give the mullahs pause would be a ban on Iranian oil exports. With oil already hovering around $93 a barrel, no one in the administration is willing to risk a step that could send prices soaring and, in the worst case, cause a confrontation at sea over a blockade.
For all the talk about how “all options are on the table,” Washington says a military strike isn’t worth the risk of war; the Israelis say there may be no other choice. But they have said “this is the last chance” every year since 2005.
All of which raises the question: how much more delay can be bought with a covert campaign of assassination, cyberattacks and sabotage?
Some more, but probably not much. It has taken the Iranians 20 years so far to get their nuclear act together — far longer than it took the United States and the Soviets in the ’40s, the Chinese and the Israelis in the ’60s, the Indians in the ’70s, and the Pakistanis and the North Koreans in more recent times. The problem is partly that they were scammed by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani who sold them his country’s discards.
The assassination and the sabotage have taken a psychological toll, making scientists wonder if every trip to work may be their last, every line of code the beginning of a new round of destruction. Stuxnet was devilishly ingenious: it infected millions of computers, but did damage only when the code was transferred to special controllers that run centrifuges, which spin at supersonic speed when enriching uranium. When operators looked at their screens, everything looked normal. But downstairs in the plant, the centrifuges suddenly spun out of control and exploded, like small bombs. It took months for the Iranians to figure out what had happened.
But now the element of surprise is gone. The Iranians are digging their plants deeper underground, and enriching uranium at purities that will make it easier to race for a bomb. When Barack Obama was sworn into office, they had enough fuel on hand to produce a single weapon; today, by the I.A.E.A.’s own inventory, they have enough for at least four. And as the Quds Force has shown, sabotage and assassination is a two-way game, which may ratchet up one confrontation just as Americans have been exhausted by two others.
David E. Sanger is the chief Washington correspondent of The New York Times.