A Covert Campaign Is the Only Way to Stop Iran's Nuclear Ambitions
The death of another Iranian scientist has led to criticism of such actions, but Tehran's refusal to co-operate leaves little alternative
By Andrew Cummings, Guardian.co.uk, January 12, 2012-01-21
As yet another Iranian scientist becomes the victim of increasingly bold and creative attempts to disrupt and delay the Iranian nuclear programme, commentators around the world have lined up to point out the risks to this audacious approach.
It is true . . . that whoever is doing this risks profound consequences for the region. What many people fail to recognise, though, is that a covert campaign, while rife with physical, diplomatic and legal risks, is the lesser of many evils.
No one should doubt that the west (and Israel) desire a negotiated settlement to Iran's nuclear programme. The Stuxnet virus, mysterious explosions at military bases and the James Bond-esque antics of motorcycle assassins have taken up many column inches, while less has been written about the efforts of the E3+3 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK and US) to reach a diplomatic solution.
Since 2003, western powers, working closely with their often-resistant Russian and Chinese counterparts, have kept the door open to Iran to negotiate. This has been despite continual provocation, whether in the form of secret enrichment facilities such as the one outside Qom or in Iran's bellicose pronouncements regarding enrichment.
The E3+3 continues to hold out a generous offer to Iran: give up your military programme that even the International Atomic Energy Agency has expressed concern about and receive economic investment and a properly safeguarded modern civil nuclear programme. That would be a good deal in most people's eyes.
A military campaign is one alternative to a diplomatic solution. The debate around the pros and cons is unlikely to reduce any time soon. Meir Dagan, Israel's former spy chief, has been one notable voice sounding caution, with the US Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum at the opposite end of the spectrum, preparing to fuel US fighter jets if he becomes the US's next commander in chief.
Many commentators argue that supporters of a covert campaign see it as an alternative to war. They warn that covert action will ruin chances of dialogue with Tehran while encouraging Iran to use its own covert operations. What this fails to recognise is that Iran has long been the master of covert operations.
Through the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), Iran has been responsible for increasing the efficacy of insurgent improvised bombs in both Iraq and Afghanistan. It has helped to prop up Bashar al-Assad's murderous regime in Syria and has a track record of attempting to assassinate or imprison its enemies – both at home and abroad.
Instead of damaging the chances of dialogue, covert action might actually do the opposite. All those who have been involved in negotiating with Iran understand the difficulties involved. Iran's leaders continue to see the Islamic Republic through its long and rich history as a regional and world power rather than through its modern reality as an isolated pariah state with a weak economy that oppresses its brave citizens while rigging "democratic" elections. As a result, the supreme leader has consistently refused to allow his negotiators to engage in a meaningful dialogue. Instead, Iran has held out the prospect of talks while more often than not refusing to even put the nuclear issue on the agenda. The E3+3, in their desire to keep the door open, have accepted these talks, but have never seen any fruits from their labour.
The one notable exception to this was in October 2003, when, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and having seen its closest neighbour toppled, the supreme leader authorised the signing of the Tehran declaration. This agreement with the UK, France and Germany led to the temporary suspension of Iran's uranium enrichment and demonstrated that, when faced with an existential threat to the regime, Iran was willing to deal.
What followed, however, was an uprising in Iraq (assisted by Tehran), stalemate in Afghanistan (assisted by Tehran) and a reduction in pressure as the international community focused on other issues, believing the problem was being solved.
To deliver a negotiated settlement needs a comprehensive strategy. Covert action, increasingly robust sanctions, along with a credible threat of military action remain one half of the E3+3's dual-track strategy of pressure and engagement that was recently restated by the British foreign secretary. Covert action carries risks, but does not impact on the brave Iranian people that the Iranian authorities continually oppress.
Covert action creates the time and space for pressure to build, while reducing the need for military action. Ultimately, covert action should be aimed at bringing enough pressure to bear on Iran's leaders so that they understand they will never reach their goal of being a nuclear power. It is only at that point diplomacy can have any hope of success.