U.S. intensifies covert campaign against Iran's nuclear weapons program

Published 2 July 2010

Since 1960, Israel relied on covert — and, at times, less covert — campaign to prevent Egypt, Iraq, and Syria from acquiring nuclear weapons; Libya, too, was persuaded to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons; during the past decade and half, both the United States and Israel have been directing their covert anti-nuclear efforts toward the Iranian nuclear program; one analyst notes that sabotage campaign is a tactic, not a diplomatic strategy — but the history of successful non-proliferation efforts is often a history of kicking the nuclear can down the diplomatic road until new leadership comes to the conclusion that it has more to gain by abandoning illicit nuclear activity than by acquiring a bomb

USAF special operators using a HALO (High Altitude Low Opening) parachute insertion // Source: examiner.com

Last June we write that during the past four-and-a-half decades, Israel has used a combination of ruthless covert operations and overt military means to prevent three Arab countries — Egypt, Iraq, and Syria — from acquiring the capability to build nuclear weapons. As Iran approaches the home stretch of its nuclear weapons program, it may want to reflect on this history (see “What’s past is prologue: Israel’s covert campaign against Iran’s nuclear program,” 11 June 2009 HSNW).

Spencer Ackerma writes that Iran has plenty of reasons to reflect on the history of covert actions taken to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation in the Middle East. He writes that, in one case, U.S. intelligence operatives knew that an underground supply-chain network existed to get spare parts suitable for illicit uranium enrichment in Iran. They did not know how extensive it was — but they did know some of its nodes. So what did they do? The started start introducing some faulty supply into the chain. The result: nuclear chaos in Iran.

Ackerman refers to what he rightly describes as a must-read piece by Eli Lake in the current issue of the New Republic.

Lake goes deep inside an extremely murky and decades-old enterprise, one inherited from CIA operations against the KGB. Along with fellow masters of chaos in Israel’s Mossad, U.S. operatives and intelligence assets have introduced defective vacuum pumps and decay-inducing chemical sprays to keep Iran’s centrifuges from properly separating uranium isotopes into bomb-ready material.

Ackerman writes that this covert action sends two messages to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the self-proclaimed soldiers of God who increasingly control the Iranian nuke program: We know how you are getting this stuff, and we can touch you when we feel like it.

Whether this covert campaign can stop the nuclear program is a different issue. Tehran now has two Bombs’ worth of low enriched uranium, despite what appears to be international efforts to foul up the centrifuges. The nuclear facility at Natanz is now cranking out 120 kilograms of LEU a month, up from 70 kilograms in late 2008.

Ackerman notes that that sabotage, as Lake describes it, is a tactic, not a diplomatic strategy. The history of successful non-proliferation efforts, however, is often a history of kicking the nuclear can down the diplomatic road (foe example, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Libya, South Korea), until new leadership comes to the conclusion that it has more