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Covert Action and Iran’s Nuclear Program

February 19th, 2009

Iran's uranium enrichment facility at Natanz. (Source: Washington Note)

Mark Lowenthal, former vice-chairman of the National Intelligence Council, wrote in his textbook on intelligence:

In evaluating proposed covert actions, policy makers should examine analogous past operations. Have they been tried in this same nation or region? What were the results? Are the risk factors different? Has this type of operation been tried elsewhere? Again, with what results? Although these are commonsense questions, they run up against a governmental phenomenon: the inability to use historical examples. (p. 167)

Citizens in a free society can ask these questions, too. As the recent Telegraph report on Israel’s “covert war” against Iran’s nuclear program proliferates through cyberspace–dovetailing prior reportage in The New York Times (2008) and ABC News (2007) about American covert programs–Bellum stands ready to assist.

What are the alleged programs?

Media reports present a couple versions. The May 2007 report by ABC described “a ‘nonlethal presidential finding’ that puts into motion a CIA plan that reportedly includes a coordinated campaign of propaganda, disinformation and manipulation of Iran’s currency and international financial transactions.” It cited perennially nameless “officials” who confided that the program was “designed to pressure Iran to stop its nuclear enrichment program and end aid to insurgents in Iraq.” Indeed, the Iranian rial has seen dramatic swings since 2008–but so has the rest of the world. Neither enrichment nor support to the insurgency has stopped.

Although the Iranian rial has indeed appreciated sharply over the past year, so has the Swiss franc. (Yahoo! Finance)

While the Iranian rial (blue) has experienced wild fluctuations over the past year, so has the Swiss franc (red). (Source: Yahoo! Finance)

The September 2008 report by David E. Sanger of The New York Times described a different kind of program, targeted less at the regime itself than on the technical program. According to Sanger:

The covert American program, started in early 2008, includes renewed American efforts to penetrate Iran’s nuclear supply chain abroad, along with new efforts, some of them experimental, to undermine electrical systems, computer systems and other networks on which Iran relies.

How effective such a program might have been so far is beyond our knowledge, but it is worth noting that the newly-appointed Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair last week reiterated the Intelligence Community’s 2007 assessment that Iran would be “technically capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) for a weapon sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame.”

Finally, the Israeli program as described by The Telegraph is markedly more violent:

It is using hitmen, sabotage, front companies and double agents to disrupt the regime’s illicit weapons project, the experts say.

The most dramatic element of the “decapitation” programme is the planned assassination of top figures involved in Iran’s atomic operations.

Rumors circulated in February 2007 that the Mossad had assassinated a top Iranian scientist that January. Iranian allegations of espionage by members of the Bahai faith and by Americans suggest Tehran is worried about covert plots against the regime.

Are there any historical antecedents involving covert equipment sabotage?

Yes. In an excellent Center for the Study of Intelligence piece entitled “The Farewell Dossier,” former National Security Council official Guy Weiss tells the story of how US intelligence sabotaged various Soviet technical programs in the 1980s. According to Weiss, “the Soviets trailed Western standards by more than a decade” when it came to computers and high-end electronics. As a result of this handicap, the KGB and GRU operated a remarkably successful agency called Line X “to obtain technical and scientific knowledge from the West.” From the article:

Since 1970, Line X had obtained thousands of documents and sample products, in such quantity that it appeared that the Soviet military and civil sectors were in large measure running their research on that of the West, particularly the United States. Our science was supporting their national defense. Losses were in radar, computers, machine tools, and semiconductors. Line X had fulfilled two-thirds to three-fourths of its collection requirements–an impressive performance.

Thanks to the efforts of a defector codenamed Farewell, Western intelligence services were able to penetrate this network:

The CIA…contrived to introduce altered products into KGB collection. American industry helped in the preparation of items to be “marketed” to Line X. Contrived computer chips found their way into Soviet military equipment, flawed turbines were installed on a gas pipeline, and defective plans disrupted the output of chemical plants and a tractor factory. The Pentagon introduced misleading information pertinent to stealth aircraft, space defense, and tactical aircraft.

Richard Westalls The Sword of Damocles, 1812

Richard Westall's The Sword of Damocles, 1812

The Israelis undertook a similar effort to forestall Iraq’s nascent nuclear program in the 1970s. According to Shlomo Brom, writing for the Strategic Studies Institute: “Israeli agents succeeded in sabotaging the core of the reactor while it was stored in France prior to its shipment to Iraq.” But this action only resulted in a delay, rather than halt, of French cooperation with Saddam Hussein–hence the 1981 attack on Osirak.

Are there any historical antecedents involving assassinations designed to forestall a technical program?

Yes. In the early 1960s, the Mossad launched Operation Damocles to subvert an Egyptian missile program run by ex-Nazi German scientists. According to Ephraim Kahana, writing in Strategic Intelligence:

This campaign involved abductions and letter bombs, causing the deaths of at least five people between 1962 and 1963. (p. 68)

Israeli intelligence is also believed to have been behind the assassination of the Canadian artillery expert Gerald Bull in Brussels in March 1990. Bull was allegedly working on a “supergun” project reminiscent of the World War I-era Paris Gun. According to Efraim Karsh’s biography of Saddam Hussein:

Soon afterwards, the U.K. customs confiscated eight Iraqi-bound large steel tubes…believed to to be destined to form the barrel of Dr. Bull’s 40-ton “supergun.” During the next few weeks other parts of the “supergun” were intercepted in Greece and Turkey. (p. 209)

What’s the bottom line?

Bellum certainly doesn’t believe everything it reads. Elements of the aforementioned reportage may be off the mark, in some cases wildly. Nevertheless, there are clear historical examples that can shed some light on whether such programs are feasible.  Both sabotage and assassination can cause serious problems for technical programs that depend upon precise equipment and rare engineering skillsets. But we are also reminded of French nuclear expert Bruno Tertrais’ warning:

I’m a pessimist about the evolution of the issue, since all countries which have actually invested as much as Iran has have ended up going nuclear.

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