Opinion: Covert Ops Imply Limited Time Left to Stop Iran

Photo Courtesy of UN Photo/Marco Castro

In roughly one month, three different “mysterious” explosions have occurred in Iran, targeting facilities that at least could have had links to the Iranian nuclear or missile programs. The likelihood that all three were accidents, as Iran has claimed, is as probable as the assertion that Tehran really has no desire to produce a nuclear weapon. In fact, the blasts strongly hint that Iran is getting closer than ever to the bomb.

Sabotage of the Iranian nuclear program is nothing new. For years drive-by assassinations of Iranian scientists have occurred inside the country. The Stuxnet computer malware apparently did its own setback to the Iranian program and even reportedly slowed down the Russian civilian nuclear reactor project in the Iranian city of Bushehr.

But blowing up facilities is a whole new level in the covert efforts to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.

First, there is the increased risk of getting caught. A drive-by shooting is much easier to pull off. The gunman is unknown, the security is lax if not non-existent and the assassin is already on his or her getaway vehicle.

Similarly, the Stuxnet attack has the benefit of substantial anonymity, considering the many different places the malware could have been implanted into the Iranian systems (media reports had even suggested the malware could have been put into play outside Iran, since the equipment was purchased from abroad).

But bombing military or notable civilian facilities is something else altogether. Security should be more intense and setting off a bomb is not a simple, in-and-out project. It takes planning, picking the best location, covertly placing the explosives and setting them off. Even sabotage of dangerous elements in the facilities so they explode on their own will take some effort.

Another complication for explosive sabotage is the use of assets. Getting access to a major missile location, where the first blast occurred, would take either very good covert soldiers or well-placed spies. There are limited numbers of both.

Every attack risks more evidence, or the narrowing number of names for the rooting out of potential spies, that could lead to the apprehension of the agents.

In light of the increased risks, it appears that Israel, the US or whatever nation is behind the latest sabotage considers the Iranian nuclear program to be a serious enough threat.

Furthermore, the timeframe appears to be dwindling as well. Considering the limited number of agents who have worked their way into Iran, or perhaps into the government or companies in the country, risking them or perhaps even losing their usefulness implies this is a “last-chance” option before open warfare.

It remains unclear when or even if Israel or the West will hit the Iranian nuclear program with air or missile strikes, and any time bought by sabotage can help prevent the necessity of reverting to a full-military option.

Interestingly, former US diplomat Dennis Ross, in a speech to The Washington Institute for Near East Policy this week, claimed there’s still time to diplomatically pressure Iran to stop their pursuit of nuclear weapons. And he also named covert action, in addition to “diplomatic means,” as some of the approaches that should be “explored” in dealing with Iran.

According to an edited transcript of his comments on the Institute website, Ross said, “By definition, covert action isn’t something you talk about. So, what I would say is the full range of options needs to be pursued. There’s a whole range of tools that we have available—diplomatic, economic, military. And all options ought to be explored. The objective is clear, and you have to think about what’s the best mix of options that you can pursue.”

It certainly appears that in addition to sanctions and possible military preparations, covert action is being used to try and slow down, if not halt, Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It’s also apparent that those covert ops are being escalated—which raises serious questions about how long we have until the military option will have to be implemented.

(By Joshua Spurlock, www.themideastupdate.com, December 15, 2011)