January 13, 2011
Number 01/11 #02
Two senior Israeli figures, Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Yaalon and Meir Dagan, the retiring head of the Mossad intelligence agency, have recently suggested that current setbacks in Iran’s nuclear program mean there is now more time that previously thought to deal with this issue – perhaps up to four years according to Dagan. This Update discusses the implications of this claim, if true.
First up is American columnist David Ignatius. He adds some additional sources from within the US Administration, and calls attention to the fact that covert actions – including the Stuxnet virus and other measures – appear to be behind the delay in the program, even if the public details are, as you would expect, fuzzy. He also looks at the implications for US policy of the apparently extended timeline. For all that he has to say, CLICK HERE. Ignatius mentions an excellent ISIS report on Stuxnet, which can be downloaded here. Meanwhile, Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu steps back from the timing suggested by Dagan, pointing out that this is only an estimate, and the problem remains highly urgent, requiring a credible threat of force to produce a positive outcome.
Next, this Update includes Israeli commentator Charley J. Levine who describes the apparent delay in Iranian nuclear progress as a great victory, and one under-reported by the media. He argues that this is an additional success for the covert strategy being pursued against Iran’s nuclear program by Israel, the US and others – an ability to “attack effectively and keep quiet.” He suggests Stuxnet deserves a Nobel peace prize, allowing the world to sleep a bit safer. For his full argument, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, strategic specialist Max Boot discusses the growing use and utility of covert action by the US, Israel and others.
Finally, former senior US government Middle East advisor Elliott Abrams looks at the situation in Lebanon, where Hezbollah has just brought down the government over the expected findings of a UN tribunal into the murder of former PM Rafiq Hariri. Abrams points out that Hezbollah, together with its Syrian and Iranian patrons, is maintaining a stranglehold on the country based on its military superiority, and that only effective resistance to this by the Lebanese majority can prevent that stranglehold from become overwhelming and permanent, He says the US Administration is acting correctly so far, but will depend on the majority anti-Hezbollah Lebanese if it is to offer effective support. For the rest of what Abrams has to say, CLICK HERE. A deeper exploration of the Lebanese political situation, published before the latest developments, comes from Lebanese author and journalist Michael Young, while Israeli analyst Zvi Bar’el explains Hezbollah’s likely calculus in timing the resignations when it did.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Noted Iran-watcher Michael Ledeen sees signs of growing conflict among Iranian elites. Meanwhile, Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi publicly pleads the case of fellow Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, just imprisoned for 11 years for defending Iranian dissidents.
- Canadian author and academic Terry Glavin calls attention to the ongoing plight of Iranian workers and unionists, with the head of the journalists union just sentenced to 16 months prison for pointing out that the government keeps shutting down publications it does not like.
- Iran downgrades a shrine said to be the tomb of Esther and Mordechai from the Jewish story of Purim – and instead alleges a Jewish massacre of Persians.
- Appreciations for retiring Mossad head Meir Dagan – and especially his efforts on Iran – from the Jerusalem Post and from former Israeli minister Tzahi Hanegbi.
- An account of ongoing Iranian efforts to infiltrate Israeli intelligence circles and counter Israel’s apparent successes in covertly targeting the nuclear program.
- The always erudite Middle East scholar Martin Kramer takes on an argument that famous American diplomat and foreign policy theorist George Kennan would today call for simply containing Iran.
- Some Israeli commentators see an opening for peace with Syria – but Lebanon and Syria expert Tony Badran knocks this idea on the head. Meanwhile, leading academic specialist Dr. Jonathan Spyer sees a danger that US policy on Syria is rewarding bad behaviour.
- Some interesting coverage and comment on the situation of Sudan in the wake of the Independence referendum in that country’s south – here, here, here and here.
- Several discussions – here, here, and here – on the significance of the Jewishness and beliefs of US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was severely wounded during the Tucson shooting massacre earlier this week.
- A comment on Israeli-Palestinian affairs from AIJAC analyst Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz, plus two AIJAC media releases – on recent Australian voting at the UN to oppose the planned “Durban III” conference and the Australian government’s decision to appeal a court decision regarding accused Nazi war criminal Charles Zentai.
By David Ignatius
Sunday, January 9, 2011
The Obama administration has concluded that Iran’s nuclear program has been slowed by a combination of sanctions, sabotage and Iran’s own technical troubles. Because of the delay, U.S. officials see what one describes as “a little bit of space” before any military showdown with Iran.
Israeli officials, too, see more time on the clock. Moshe Yaalon, Israel’s deputy prime minister, noted the Iranian slowdown in a Dec. 29 interview with Israel Radio and said the West has up to three years to stop Tehran from making a bomb.
“These [Iranian] difficulties slow the timeline, of course,” said Yaalon, a former Israeli defense chief. And last Thursday, outgoing Mossad chief Meir Dagan told Israeli reporters that Iran couldn’t build a bomb before 2015 at the earliest, in part because of unspecified “measures that have been deployed against them.”
A senior Obama administration official gave me a similar account of Iran’s troubles. “They’re not moving as fast as we had feared a year ago,” he said.
This new assessment of Iran’s nuclear setbacks has lowered the temperature on what had been 2010’s hottest strategic issue. Last summer, Jerusalem and Washington were talking themselves into a war fever, prompted in part by a powerful article in the Atlantic by Jeffrey Goldberg that starkly described the likelihood of military action. This fever seems to have broken.
What’s increasingly clear is that low-key weapons – covert sabotage and economic sanctions – are accomplishing many of the benefits of military action, without the costs. It’s a devious approach – all the more so because it’s accompanied by near-constant U.S. proposals of diplomatic dialogue – but in that sense, it matches Iran’s own operating style of pursuing multiple options at once.
Officials won’t discuss the clandestine program of cyberattack and other sabotage being waged against the Iranian nuclear program. Yet we see the effects – in crashing centrifuges and reduced operations of the Iranian enrichment facility at Natanz – but don’t understand the causes. That’s the way covert action is supposed to work.
The most direct confirmation that sabotage has paid off came from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who said in November that the Stuxnet computer virus had damaged the Natanz operation. “They succeeded in creating problems for a limited number of our centrifuges with the software they had installed in electronic parts,” he said.
A fascinating (and remarkably detailed) account of the Stuxnet attack was published Dec. 22 by the Institute for Science and International Security. The study described how the virus was targeted to attack a key electronic control in the centrifuges, known as a “frequency converter,” so that the spin of the rotors was increased and slowed in a way that would cause a malfunction.
According to the ISIS report, the virus may have been introduced in early or mid 2009. By late 2009 or early 2010, the study said, Iran decommissioned and replaced about 1,000 centrifuges – far more than normal breakage. The virus hid its electronic tracks, but an analysis by the security firm Symantec showed that the code included the term “DEADFOO7,” which could refer to the aviation term for a dead engine and also be a play on James Bond’s fictional code name.
Stuxnet was just one of what appeared to have been a series of efforts to disrupt the supply chain of the Iranian nuclear program. “Such overt and covert disruption activities have had significant effect in slowing Iran’s centrifuge program,” concluded the ISIS.
The delays in the Iranian program are important because they add strategic warning time for the West to respond to any Iranian push for a bomb. U.S. officials estimate that if Iran were to try a “break out” by enriching uranium at Natanz to the 90 percent level needed for a bomb, that move (requiring reconfiguration of the centrifuges) would be detectable – and it would take Iran one to two more years to make a bomb.
The Iranians could try what U.S. officials call a “sneak out” at a secret enrichment facility like the one they constructed near Qom. They would have to use their poorly performing (and perhaps still Stuxnet-infected) old centrifuges or an unproven new model. Alternative enrichment technologies, such as lasers or a heavy-water reactor, don’t appear feasible for Iran now, officials say. Foreign technology from Russia and other suppliers has been halted, and the Iranians can’t build the complex hardware (such as a “pressure vessel” needed for the heavy-water reactor) on their own.
The Obama administration keeps holding the door open for negotiations, and another round is scheduled this month in Istanbul. But the real news is that Tehran has technical problems – bringing sighs of relief (and a few mischievous smiles) in the West.
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Derailment of Iran’s nuclear program is greatest under-reported news story of 2010
Charley J. Levine
Three attacks on developing nuclear centers have occurred in the world, the most recent scant months ago. It is amazing that the year 2010, pegged universally as crunch time regarding Iran’s atomic ambitions, ended with such a whimper, not a bang. It was to be a year characterized ultimately by a crippling counter-blow to Teheran’s plans -with nary a peep from the media. No “top 10 stories of 2010” inclusions. Not even a Wiki-leak. Blaming Game
On June 7, 1981 Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin ordered his air force to destroy Saddam Hussein’s Osirak nuclear site in Iraq. As the world twiddled its thumbs and tut-tutted, Israel took out this metastasizing growth. The UN Security Council, including America’s vote, condemned the attack 12 days later. As recently as a few months ago, calls for compensation to be paid by Israel to Iraq were still being voiced.
Just three years ago, on September 6, the Syrian nuke site at Deir Ez Zor, a shill for North Korea, was leveled. Both the IAEA and CIA had concluded the site was heading toward military functionality. Eight “unidentified” aircraft carried out the mission, which included clandestine scouts on the ground. The bombers used Turkish airspace, tacitly approved as a result of Ankara’s deep concerns over budding Syrian nuclearization. Brigadier General Mohammed Suleiman, President Assad’s go-to-guy with North Korea and Iran was subsequently – as if for good measure – shot dead by an unnamed sniper while on vacation on August 2, 2008.
Although then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice confirmed (a Wiki revelation) that Israel had rather unsurprisingly mounted the attack, no UN condemnations followed, this from an international body never shy to hurl hostile pronunciamentos in Jerusalem’s direction. With supreme irony, the Syrians were too embarrassed to make much of a to-do, and Israel clearly preferred to keep it quiet.
Most amazing of all, the third attack was “silent but not subtle” as one analyst observed. Stuxnet. Even the name discourages casual conversation. Try saying it five times, fast. Perhaps the most sophisticated, complex worm virus ever designed (massively comprised of 15,000 lines of code) invaded the rapidly developing computer control systems of Iran’s atomic facilities. Analysts ascribed the capability to develop this level of malware to a small circle of candidates: the US, Britain, Israel.
Washington’s Institute for Science and International Security concluded that Stuxnet infected as many as 30,000 institutional computers involved in the project and outright broke 1,000 Iranian IR-1 centrifuges at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, prompting a rare understatement from President Ahmadinejad citing technical problems as the cause for a temporary shutdown of the plant.
World security experts opined that Stuxnet was “amazing” and “groundbreaking,” even a “prime example of clandestine digital warfare.” Most concurred that basement hackers would not be likely sources of the malware, which required tremendous time, brainpower and government-level resources to create.
Nobel Peace Prize for Stuxnet
Whodunnit? Curiously, even though many suspected Israel, global reactions were relatively muted. Some pointed to the IDF’s Military Intelligence Unit 8200, concentrating dozens of brainy Israel’s most precocious geeks under one roof. President Obama also ordered the creation in the US of a new military unit called Cyber Command, headed by General Keith Alexander. No one is perfect, but the new American unit failed spectacularly to prevent the mass Wiki-pilferage that recently rocked the world.
Some point to two deeply imbedded Stuxnet file names, myrtus and guava, interpreted as a not so subtle allusion to the Bible’s Esther story. Her Hebrew name was myrtle, in the guava family, and of course she saved her people the Jews…from imminent annihilation in ancient Iran. Then again, it might have been a red herring.
If the malwarfare were not enough, an outright panic assault on Iran’s atomic scientists was also an integral part of the campaign. As recently as November 29, 2010, quantum physicist Majid Shahriari was eliminated in Tehran and colleague Fereydoun Abbasi was seriously injured in another assassination attempt across town.
Previously, quantum theorist Massoud Alimohammadi was killed in a similar attack and Ardeshir Hosseinpour, an authority on electromagnetism, died mysteriously in 2007 during his nuclear work at Isfahan. The four targets were themselves valuable assets, but clearly the more important accomplishment was to cause the next 5,000 people engaged in weaponizing Iran to shiver and perhaps think twice about their career path. Death was delivered not by drone in these cases but simply by exploding motorbikes next to the scientists’ respective cars.
As monumentally significant as the strategic ramifications of Stuxnet are, the universal lack of media coverage of this new phase of cyberwar was nothing less than stunning. Whereas the Osirak operation commanded page one attention everywhere for a lengthy news cycle, the latter two initiatives attracted less press interest than a devastating flood might in Upper Volta.
A key lesson has clearly been learned: Attack effectively and keep quiet. A cursory Google news scan turned up only 30 references to Osirak which is of course more history than news in 2011. But key word searches for the Syrian episode revealed only 131 news references, and Stuxnet barely cleared the 1,000 hurdle. Contrasted to Justin Bieber announcing his upcoming performance in Israel, these tiny numbers border somewhere between negligible and non-existent.
The temporary derailment of Iran’s atomic program is the greatest news story NOT reported on in 2010, made possible by the world media’s fierce indifference to this defeat by malware. Meanwhile, the West can sleep just a little better tonight as a result, comforted by the amazing results that transcended tepid international sanctions…results secured by a smart and civic minded Lone Ranger who might be considered for the next Nobel Peace Prize. But nobody for sure knows who that quiet masked man was. Or what he did. Or why he did it.
Charley J. Levine is a media relations and public affairs specialist living in Jerusalem
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by Elliott Abrams
Council on Foreign Relations
Posted on Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Newspapers today are reporting that Hizbollah-backed members of parliament have withdrawn from the Lebanese government, effectively bringing down the coalition led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
In 2005 the leading citizen of Lebanon, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, was murdered by a gigantic car bomb that killed 22 other people as well. An international commission was established to investigate the murder, and is soon to report its findings. By all accounts it will accuse Hizballah of being at least partly responsible. Hizballah is demanding that the Government of Lebanon reject the findings, a particularly poignant demand for the current prime minister, Saad Hariri, as it was his father who was assassinated in 2005.
In any normal country this demand would be rejected easily, but Lebanon is not a normal country. Hizballah’s power comes less from its popularity among Shia Lebanese than from its army, which is far stronger than the official Lebanese Armed Forces.
After Hariri’s killing, mass demonstrations on March 14, 2005 led to the expulsion of Syria’s occupation forces and to new elections. From then to the Spring of 2008 Lebanon enjoyed a period of true democracy—but one embittered by the assassination of many leading journalists and political figures (almost all of them Christian) who were enemies of Syria and its occupation. In this brief period France and the United States strongly supported Lebanon, verbally and financially, symbolized by Secretary of State Rice’s visits there and the visits to the White House of then-prime minister Siniora, the Maronite patriarch Cardinal Sfeir, and many other Lebanese leaders.
But Hizballah called the bluff in May 2008, in essence telling their fellow Lebanese they were willing to fight and to kill to have their way (and scores were killed)—and daring them to fight back. Hizballah showed that it was prepared to use its forces against the people of Lebanon, despite its claims that the purpose of the force is only to maintain a “Resistance” against Israel. Neither the Christians, the Druze, nor the Sunnis were prepared to fight, nor were France or the United States willing to send troops or countenance another Lebanese civil war.
Since then Hizballah has been holding the entire country hostage while arming itself to the teeth with the help of Syria and Iran. Today’s Hizballah resignation from the government, where it formally held minority status, is a threat to every Lebanese. If Hariri complies with Hizballah’s demands, he is in my view finished as a national and as a Sunni leader, having compromised his own, his family’s, and his country’s honor. It appears that Hariri won’t do it, which is both a moral and a politically intelligent decision. Instead he and his country are left floating, trying to avoid violence that may only benefit Hizballah and watching Saudi and Syrian mediation whose outcome for Lebanese sovereignty is likely to be tragic.
Today Hizballah, backed by Syria and Iran, keeps its hands around the throat of every Lebanese. “The situation surrounding the tribunal has effectively frozen all other aspects of political life,” Michael Young (opinion editor of the Beirut Daily Star and the best commentator on Lebanese affairs) said yesterday; “We are effectively in a political deadlock, and I think this will last.” The United States has been firm, verbally, in backing Hariri and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is perhaps all we can do for now; in the long run, the greatest contribution we can make would be to reassert American influence in the region and diminish the sense that Iran and its ally Hizballah are the rising powers. We should also make it very clear that sending an ambassador to Damascus—and I, like Young, believe that was an error—was not meant to symbolize a reduction in support for Lebanon or an agreement that Syria may increase its influence there.
But at bottom this is far less a test of the United States than of the Lebanese. No one will resist Hizballah unless they do. The majority of Lebanese who oppose Hizballah, and who are mostly Maronite Catholics, Druze, and Sunni, must demonstrate that they have the will to keep their country from complete domination by the Shia terrorist group. This is asking quite a bit, to be sure, but Lebanese should have learned from the impact of their March 14, 2005 demonstrations that world support can be rallied and their opponents can pushed back. But they must take the lead. There is good reason for skepticism, from the collaborationism of the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt (who would rather switch than fight, then switch again, and then again) to the way in which the entire political establishment of Lebanon lined up to cheer the return of the terrorist and child-murderer Samir Kuntar in 2008. Those who wish Lebanon well must also hope that its political leaders and its populace show the considerable courage that this crisis demands of them.