This week's UN-mandated deadline for Iran to suspend its nuclear enrichment efforts passed with little notice, largely because the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Tehran has stated repeatedly that it has no plans to give up its nuclear program, and so far, the World Community has been unable to devise an effective strategy for dealing with the problem, aside from some tepid sanctions, the occasional, sharply-worded diplomatic letter, and years of fruitless, European-sponsored negotiations.
Feeling his oats, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Friday that the western powers are "unable to act" against his country. And, at first glance, there seems to be an element of truth in his claim. The aforementioned western "strategy has done nothing to deter Iran's nuclear ambitions; cynics would even argue that the current cycle of talks and sanctions has provided an inadvertent boost to the program. With the west unwilling (so far) to consider more decisive, collective action, the Iranians view our current, hesitant approach as a green light to continue their activities.
However, this is not to say that Tehran's nuclear program is completely beyond the reach of the U.S. and its allies. This past week, several media outlets reported that the U.S. had initiated a sabotage campaign against Iran's nuclear efforts, intercepting equipment and parts bound for that country's nuclear facilities, and replacing them with sub-standard or defective components. The idea, of course, is that the faulty items will slow Tehran's efforts to enrich uranium, or even trigger an accident that could set back key programs by weeks, or even months. There are no indications as to how successful the program has been, although the public disclosure will almost certainly doom future attempts.
The notion of sabotaging enemy systems is hardly new. During the first Gulf War, the U.S. allegedly intercepted a printer bound from a French manufacturer, to one of Saddam Hussein's air defense sites. The printer was uploaded with a virus before resuming its journey to Iraq. The virus was reportedly programmed to go active during the coalition air campaign, rendering portions of the Iraqi air defense system inoperative.
I've never been able to fully verify the printer story, but I am familiar with a similar effort, spearheaded by the USAF, NSA and special ops personnel. With detailed knowledge of the communications lines that linked Iraqi air defense nodes, the U.S. decided to insert a virus through a network cable buried in the Iraqi desert. The job of creating the virus rested with the Air Force and NSA; one of the key architects, I am told, was a young airman who came to the attention of NSA because of his repeated success in penetrating their network security systems. Once the virus was developed, the snake eaters took it into Iraq, located the cable, and the rest is history.
If we are attempting a sabotage campaign against Iran, I'm guessing that the effort wouldn't be limited to defective parts and components. At some point, the computer networks which service (and link) Tehran's nuclear facilities have some sort of interface with outside systems (or even the internet), which could provide potential attack points.
Ahmadinejad's claim that the west is "unable to act" against his country may be correct--at least for now--and in terms of our publicly-declared strategy. But we have other ways of reaching out and "touching" rogue states, tactics that may also be employed, if those media reports are true. Along with his pursuit of more advanced missiles and a viable nuclear weapon design, the Iranian madman may also find it necessary to invest in something more mundane, like more secure computer networks.