Foreign Affairs December 2005

The Covert Option

Can sabotage and assassination stop Iran from going nuclear?

In the debate over how to respond to Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons, much attention has been paid to the "Osirak option"—a reference to Israel's successful 1981 air strike on Iraq's Osirak reactor, which was then on the verge of producing plutonium for a nuclear weapon. Considerably less has been said about the seemingly star-crossed history of the reactor, and those involved with it, in the years before the bombing.

Iraq bought the cores for the Osirak reactor from France. Originally they were to be shipped to Iraq in April of 1979, but shortly before their departure an explosion ripped through the warehouse that held them. An organization calling itself the French Ecological Group, which had never been heard of before (and hasn't been heard from since), claimed responsibility. Shipment was delayed for six months while the cores were repaired.

The next year Yahya al-Meshad, an important scientist in Iraq's nuclear program, arrived in France to test fuel for the reactor. The morning he was to return home a maid entered his Paris hotel room and found that he had been stabbed and bludgeoned to death. (The only person known to have seen the scientist the previous night, a prostitute who called herself Marie Express, was killed a few weeks later in a hit-and-run accident. The culprit was never found.) Soon afterward workers at firms supplying parts for the reactor began to receive threatening letters from a mysterious group called the Committee to Safeguard the Islamic Revolution. Bombs went off at the offices of one of the firms, in Italy, and at the home of the company's director-general. Over the next several months two more Iraqi nuclear scientists died in separate poisoning incidents. It is of course unlikely that these events were coincidental; most experts today believe that Mossad—Israel's secret service—was behind each of them, though it has never claimed responsibility.

It wouldn't be the first time Israel turned to sabotage or assassination to deter another country from obtaining nuclear weapons or the missiles to deliver them, and if the current standoff with Iran persists, it may not be the last. When diplomatic efforts have begun to fail but an overt military strike is not yet politically or operationally feasible, covert action becomes attractive. Israel and perhaps the United States are likely to pursue it against the Iranian nuclear program over the next few years if current attempts to negotiate a solution with Iran fall apart.

How might such a campaign play out? Iran's nuclear program relies on foreign companies for many crucial parts, as Iraq's did. A natural first target for disruption would be supply lines for these parts. Indeed, Jon Wolfsthal, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says that shipments of materials related to nuclear-weapons development have probably already "found their way to the bottom of the ocean." "Fires break out on board," Wolfsthal says. "Ships sink. If the U.S. or Israel came across intelligence that a ship registered in Singapore was going to deliver vacuum pumps [required for uranium enrichment] to a company in Dubai, those intelligence services would see to it that the boat didn't reach its destination." Supplies can also be rigged to damage the machinery in which they are installed, in transit or beforehand. Or working parts can be bugged to provide intelligence on where and how they are being used.

Even if Iran succeeds in acquiring all the supplies it needs (and it may be nearing that point), its nuclear program will remain vulnerable to sabotage. Producing fissile uranium is difficult and time-consuming, and the machinery required to do it is extremely sensitive. One step in the process is conversion, in which the uranium is blended with other chemicals and turned into a gas. In Iran this is reportedly taking place almost exclusively at the large Isfahan facility outside Tehran—a prime target for covert action. Theoretically, disabling the plant would not require especially clever tactics. (Summoning the political will and operational capacity for such action is another matter.) According to Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA officer who worked on Iran, a heavy backpack filled with plastic explosives would be enough to severely damage or destroy it.

Presented by

Terrence Henry

Terrence Henry is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas. More

Terrence Henry is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas. In January 2009, he and his wife embarked on a food tour of Argentina, Spain, Italy, England, Canada, and the United States. Some 13 months later he settled in Austin, where he is now learning the art of Texas barbecue and writing about food and film.

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