by Jordan Michael Smith
During his first months in office, President Obama secretly ordered attacks on the computer systems that run Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities, dramatically escalating a program begun under President Bush, The New York Times reported last week. Administration officials say the stepped up program, code-named “Olympic Games,” has delayed Iran’s efforts to build nuclear weapons, buying the U.S. valuable time.
But not everyone agrees. Indeed, several experts argue that in fact, the attacks have helped alienate Iran, thereby increasing—not decreasing—the chances that it will ultimately develop nukes.
“Despite the fact that Iran’s timetable to enrich uranium may have been set back, the country has increasingly enriched uranium even as the cyber-attacks have gone on,” Reza Marashi, who served in the Office of Iranian Affairs at the U.S. State Department during both the Bush and Obama administrations, told MSNBC’s Lean Forward. The attacks, according to Marashi, have hardened Iran’s resolve to build a full-blown nuclear program, by convincing the regime that it needs to protect itself from the United States and Israel.
“We’ve really opened up Pandora’s Box with the cyberattacks, which are really unprecedented,” added Marashi, who is now research director at the National Iranian American Council.
Paul Pillar, a former CIA veteran of nearly 30 years who specialized in the Middle East, goes further, labeling the sabotage a clear-cut act of aggression.
“With the cyberattacks, we have passed a threshold by pursuing a direct form of warfare,” Pillar, currently a visiting professor at Georgetown University, said, adding that it’s no coincidence that the agencies in charge of the program—the National Security Agency and the Department of Defense—control war-making for the United States.
In the short-term, U.S. sabotage of Iranian computer programs—which uses a worm known as Stuxnet, developed jointly with Israel—may delay the mullahs’ pursuit of nuclear weapons, but in the long-term it has the exact opposite effect, says Pillar.
One reason why: The attacks undermine the ongoing diplomatic negotiations.
“The only scenario in which the Iranians would decide not to have a nuclear programs is when they are convinced that we want a lasting deal with them, and when we are not seen as being hostile to them,” says Pillar. “The cyber-attacks are certainly an indication of hostility on the part of Israel and the United States which add to the Iranian perception that they need to deter any attack on them.”
Marashi agreed, saying that the Stuxnet attacks have launched an arms race with the Iranians, likely leading them to respond in some fashion. “This creates a sort of cat-and-mouse game with each side creating new facts on the ground that leads us into uncharted waters,” he said.
Of course, the larger context here is an ongoing debate about how our Iran policy should balance carrots and sticks. Many hawks—including Mitt Romney—say only intense pressure will convince Iran to abandon its weapons program. "Only when [Iran's leaders] understand that at the end of that road lies not nuclear weapons but ruin will there be a real chance for a peaceful resolution," Romney wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed.
After all, the hard-liners argue, didn’t Obama extend a hand to the Iranians only in 2009, only to have it slapped back?
But proponents of engagement say that early outreach was halfhearted and wasn't pursued long or consistently enough to be effective—an argument bolstered by last week’s revelation that Obama ordered stepped-up cyber-attacks soon after taking office.
U.S. efforts to hack our way into Iran’s nuclear program may have set back that country’s quest to build nuclear weapons by weeks or months. But the value of that delay may be outweighed by the attacks’ other consequence: the deepening of Iran’s resolve to join the club of countries with the world’s worst weapons.
Jordan Michael Smith is a Contributing Writer at Salon.