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.

If the process of turning uranium into a gas were not disrupted, the uranium would still need to be enriched. Iran's enrichment facilities most likely use old technology (provided by Pakistan) that is notoriously temperamental. "In our industry," Wolfsthal says, "we call these 'self-disassembling' machines." Enrichment takes place in long cascades of centrifuges; powerful magnets hold each centrifuge in place while it spins at high speeds to separate the fissile uranium. The magnets are prone to mishap. "If the [electrical] current powering the magnets fluctuates," Wolfsthal points out, "you can send the centrifuge flying out of its case, careening across the room like a bowling pin, and knocking out the rest of the centrifuge cascades." Such a fluctuation could be set off in the part of the power grid supplying the plant. (Like many other countries, Iran has a grid known to be unreliable at times and vulnerable to attack.) Similarly, letting a small amount of air into the vacuum-sealed centrifuges could destroy many of them and set the enrichment program back years.

Building and operating Iran's nuclear program also requires the expertise of scientists and technicians. Intimidating or assassinating key scientists has forestalled weapons development in other countries. In the late 1950s Egypt launched a ballistic-missile program with the help of German scientists, many of whom were former Nazis. In July of 1962 President Gamal Abdel Nasser unveiled two new test missiles at a military parade, bragging that they could hit targets "south of Beirut." Mossad quickly responded with Operation Damocles, an intimidation campaign targeting the German scientists. One scientist was killed in September, two months after the parade, and in the following months the scientists' families were threatened directly. In November several letter bombs addressed to the scientists were sent to the rocket facilities in Egypt; one of them killed five Egyptians. (This part of the campaign was rumored to have been called "post-mortem.") Soon all the German scientists had left Egypt—and its missile program—behind. Without them the program withered.

Iran's indigenous scientific capabilities today are much greater than Egypt's were in the 1960s, so presumably it would be much harder to eliminate them—but perhaps not impossible. A recent report written by several former senior Israeli military and intelligence officials under the leadership of Dr. Louis Beres, an American professor of international relations and international law at Purdue, advises Prime Minister Sharon to adopt a "doctrine of pre-emption" against Iran's nuclear program, and provides a menu of covert and overt options for crippling it. Prominent among them is "decapitation"—a swift covert strike against either the "enemy leadership elites" or the program's scientists and engineers. Several experts are skeptical that such a plan could succeed. But Beres believes that the logistical hurdles are surmountable. "The question," he says, "is to what extent this would be regarded as barbarous, uncivilized, and destabilizing by the international community."

Covert action alone is unlikely to solve the problem of Iranian nuclear ambitions. After all, the cloak-and- dagger efforts to sabotage the Osirak reactor bought only a couple of years' delay before Israel launched a military strike. But some of Iran's nuclear facilities (like Natanz) are not as close to being fully operational as Osirak was in 1981, and in some ways its program is more vulnerable. And permanent solutions look hard to come by today.

Meanwhile, both the United States and Israel are deeply concerned that Iran, with a nuclear shield to defend it, might seek to expand its influence as it did in the years immediately following the Islamic revolution, when it used groups like Hizbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad to carry out large-scale terrorist attacks in the region. The Israelis worry that Iran would resume attacks against their country through these terrorist groups after a ten-year period of relative quiet.

Ashton Carter, a former assistant secretary of defense, says that he would be "surprised and disappointed" if a covert campaign wasn't already under way. Conducted skillfully, Carter argues, such a campaign might not merely forestall Iranian progress toward a bomb; it might also sow doubt, causing Iranian officials to question whether their equipment actually worked and whether the people involved in the program could be trusted. By reducing the Iranians' confidence in their ability to produce nuclear weapons, it might even prompt Iran to consider abandoning its nuclear program, in return for the carrots it has so far spurned at the negotiating table.