Home inFocus The Threat from Iran

The Threat from Iran

An inFOCUS Roundtable with Experts on Iran

Alex Vatanka, Ilan Berman, Jamie Fly and Michael Ledeen Summer 2012

inFOCUS: What is the status of Iran’s nuclear program and is there a way to gauge the impact of the Stuxnet virus and the Flame worm?

Ilan Berman: The past two years have seen an extensive campaign of cyber-warfare that has been leveled against Iran by Western powers. To date, at least four distinct cyber attacks—Stuxnet, DuQu, Wiper, and most recently Flame—have attacked Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, with significant effect. By all indications, however, these measures have only had a fleeting impact. According to the Institute for Science and International Security, for example, Stuxnet only succeeded in taking some 10 percent of Iran’s total uranium enrichment centrifuges offline between 2009 and the time it was discovered in late 2010.

What these attacks have done, though, is prompt growing attention on the part of the Iranian regime on cyberwarfare. In the past year, the Islamic Republic has dedicated over $1 billion to bolstering its capability for cyber-offense. As a result, the cyber threat that Iran poses to the U.S. homeland has grown considerably, and now represents a real danger if the crisis over its nuclear program escalates further.

Michael Ledeen: I don’t know the status of Iran’s nuclear program and the experts’ estimates vary significantly, leading me to believe that nobody this side of genuine government experts knows the answer to your question. It seems that Iran has enough enriched uranium at various levels to be able to produce a bomb—or perhaps three or four—in a matter of months. But there is the additional issue of the delivery system. Can they make a small warhead?

I have a low level of confidence that even the best Western espionage agencies have a complete picture of the secret Iranian program.

Alex Vatanka: Open-source assessments of the state of the Iranian nuclear program are invariably tentative and often highly politicized. Every assertion, regardless by which camp, has to be taken with caution not least because the stakes are so high. But let’s review what we know with certainty. Iran’s nuclear program has advanced quite a lot since it was exposed to the world by an Iranian opposition group in 2002. Tehran has far more centrifuges to enrich uranium today than ever before and has opted to enrich uranium to a greater percentage. As it has shown a technical ability to move toward weapons-grade enrichment, the international community has become evermore alarmed about Tehran’s intentions. U.S. and Israeli efforts to set the program back, including the launch of cyber attacks, have been acknowledged by Tehran as damaging but the general consensus is that such efforts have failed to put a lasting dent into Iran’s nuclear program. In my personal view, Iran has not chosen to go for the bomb, but it clearly wants to have the necessary infrastructure in place should it one day decide to weaponize. I can’t otherwise explain the political and economic costs the regime in Tehran is willing to pay for a program that to this date has not produced anything good for the people of Iran.

Jamie Fly: Iran continues to make steady progress toward a nuclear weapons capability. It has significantly increased the number of centrifuges spinning at its enrichment facility at Natanz and has brought online a new facility near the city of Qom where it is enriching uranium up to 20 percent. Much has been made in the press of the supposed impact of the Stuxnet virus on Iran’s centrifuge program but data released by the International Atomic Energy Agency shows that beyond destroying a significant number of centrifuges, Stuxnet’s impact was rather limited. In fact, Iran’s production of low enriched uranium at Natanz was either steady or increasing during the supposed periods of attack. Meanwhile, Iran continues to test increasingly capable missiles that could be used to deliver a nuclear warhead. Little is known about the state of Iran’s efforts to weaponize the fissile material it is increasingly capable of producing. This is the portion of the program that the U.S. intelligence community claimed in its 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that Iran had halted in 2003—but Iran may have made significant progress on this work prior to the halt. Given Iran’s progress in all of these areas, Iran is rapidly approaching a nuclear threshold which will allow its senior leadership to decide at short notice when to make the final dash to produce nuclear weapons.

iF: What would be the implications of the P5+1 group accepting Iranian uranium enrichment up to 20 percent?

IB: Nuclear experts are in agreement that the lion’s share of the technical know-how and economic investment required to build a nuclear device lies in moving from 0 percent enrichment to civilian grade (from 4 to 7 percent enriched). From there, it is a comparatively short hop to weapons grade levels (85 or 90 percent enriched).

Iran is already far beyond that initial threshold. That the P5+1 group has now accepted Iran’s progress toward weapons grade enrichment only serves to convince the Iranian regime—and everyone else—that the West has more or less acquiesced to a nuclear Iran. That’s a very dangerous signal to send, both because it serves to reinforce Iran’s own nuclear activities and because it is likely to spur additional proliferation, as nervous neighbors in the Persian Gulf scramble to develop strategic counterweights to the emerging Iranian bomb.

ML: Since we don’t have an accurate picture of the program, this question is also unanswerable.

AV: Throughout the decade-long negotiations, it is the West that has mainly moved in the direction of meeting Tehran’s demands. At the outset, President George W. Bush was adamant that Iran did not need a nuclear program at all as it is rich in oil and gas reserves. Washington realized that was an unsustainable stance and eventually accepted the idea of an Iranian nuclear program that was verifiably for civilian purposes. Ever since then we have witnessed this multi-round of negotiations about ways to make the program transparent and verifiably peaceful.

The issue of enrichment is now again at the heart of it. In my view, the ebb and flow in the prospects for a diplomatic solution has a lot to do with the blunders made by the novice team of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that came to power in 2005. Ahmadinejad and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei failed to recognize the unanimity of the world community and squandered years on diplomatic brinkmanship. Yes, in the interim Iran’s nuclear program—including its capacity to enrich uranium—has advanced, but at a very high cost. That said, I think by all accounts the sanctions are now hurting Iran very badly and the cost-benefit equation has changed in Tehran. To me, the present threat to enrich to a higher degree is a tactical move by Tehran and aimed to secure concessions from the United States. I think the Iranians want a way out of the stalemate but are still looking to come out of this saga after winning political concessions.

JF: Iran has repeatedly violated its international nonproliferation commitments, including the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Given this track record, acceptance by the global community of any Iranian enrichment capability would serve only to legitimize Iran’s demands for access to the entire fuel cycle and lay the groundwork for future Iranian efforts to violate any agreement and pursue a nuclear breakout. The United States and its partners should be attempting to convince more countries to give up their right to the nuclear fuel cycle, not legitimating Iran’s unrealistic demands and contributing to a cascade of proliferation of sensitive technology and processes.

iF: Does Iran have the ability to close the Strait of Hormuz and can the U.S. prevent it?

IB: Nearly a decade ago, the U.S. intelligence community was already estimating that Iran had the ability to close the Strait for short periods of time, if it made the strategic decision to do so. Iran’s capabilities in this arena have only increased in the years since, thanks to investments in naval and force projection capabilities. But such a move would likely end up being deeply costly for the Iranian regime—robbing it of support from allies like China, which would be deeply affected by the resulting disruption of energy supplies, and provoking the U.S. and its partners to take control of the Strait and keep it open.

Much more dangerous and worrisome, from a U.S. and allied perspective, are Iranian moves that might narrow the Strait, reducing maritime traffic and otherwise complicating energy commerce in the Gulf. Such measures would drive the world price of oil upward, perhaps substantially so, without providing the West with a clear casus belli against Iran. Policymakers in Washington and European capitals need to be thinking deeply about ways in which the Iranian regime could manipulate the Strait and global energy commerce—and figuring out how to make it more difficult for it to do so.

ML: Iran can certainly cause a lot of trouble throughout the Gulf. I do not believe they can close the Strait, and if they tried it, they would suffer terrible losses. They know this and I do not believe they will attempt it. It’s bluff and bluster, at least until and unless Iran is attacked. At that point—and I would be surprised if that happened—the regime would order all kinds of retaliation and some would be carried out. And some would not. Loyalty is not widespread even at the highest levels of the regime.

AV: By U.S. accounts, Iran does have the ability to close off the Strait of Hormuz. This is more a reflection of how narrow and shallow the Strait is rather than the might of the Iranian navy. In fact, the Iranian naval forces pose no serious lasting challenge to U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf. What Iran can do is to mine the Strait and temporarily stop commercial traffic, but it can only do this for anything between a few days to a couple of weeks by U.S. estimates. By then the U.S. forces are expected to have cleared the mines and neutralized Iranian mining operations. Given the timing (U.S. election year) and sensitivity of the issue (jittery energy markets), it makes far more sense for Iran to threaten to close the Strait than actually seek to do it. Iran does, of course, have anti-ship missiles that can hit U.S. vessels but I don’t see them resorting to that unless a state of all-out war is in motion.

JF: Iran may have the capability to temporarily close the Strait of Hormuz, but the United States and allied militaries could reopen the Strait if necessary. The Obama administration has deployed additional military assets to the region, including those that would be useful in any conflict with Iran in the Strait. Through the use of missiles and its terrorist proxies, Iran could still threaten energy production in the Gulf, however recent pipelines—like the one recently launched by the United Arab Emirates—should help reduce the impact of a conflict on global energy markets.

iF: How secure is the Iranian government’s grip on power?

IB: It is clear that the Iranian regime faces significant internal pressures—not least from covert action on the part of concerned Western nations. The real ground game with regard to domestic stability, though, relates to Iran’s own internal opposition.

Here, the results are mixed. The Green Movement that emerged in the summer of 2009 as a result of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s fraudulent reelection to the Iranian presidency initially held tremendous promise. But—in large part because of the Obama administration’s failure to clearly and unequivocally throw its support behind Iran’s pro-democracy forces—subsequent months saw an extensive, and successful, campaign of repression by regime authorities. As a result, the Green Movement today, although not entirely a spent force, is more virtual than actual. A good indicator of this is the fact that the power struggle within Iran over the past two years hasn’t been between liberals and conservatives, but among regime conservatives, with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his followers (pejoratively termed the “deviant current”) on one side and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the country’s traditional clerical elite on the other.

However, there’s reason to hope that the economic turbulence now visible within Iran—including soaring inflation, rising commodity prices, and shortfalls in the federal budget—could end up having a real internal effect, and reinvigorate the domestic opposition to Iran’s ayatollahs.

ML: The regime feels very insecure. Just look at its behavior: massive security in the streets of the major cities, blocking Internet communications, and mass murder of presumed dissidents. Officially, Iran kills a person every eight days and the real number is probably higher. There are constant internal purges—including the top level of the Revolutionary Guard Corps—and so forth. The regime does not dare to put the leaders of the opposition on trial and there is open conflict between the Supreme Leader and President Ahmadinejad.

So, obviously the regime fears the opposition. That’s the best indicator.

I rather suspect that Supreme Leader Khamenei and his henchmen fear a mass uprising and this fear grows daily—as Syrian President Bashar al-Asad’s regime grows weaker.

AV: Ayatollah Khamenei is in the driving seat in Tehran. He has marginalized his key rivals and is preparing the ground for 2013 presidential elections where he will seek to install one of his minions. But his political consolidation strategy is high-risk, particularly given international pressure and sanctions that feed into record social-economic unease in the country. I see an explosive cocktail coming together. Khamenei’s gamble rests on two key assumptions. First, tough international sanctions are unlikely as Russia and China will no longer support the West and Iran will weather the existing sanctions. Secondly, Khamenei and his inner circle do not think the U.S. will take military action against Iran. Many even inside the ranks of the regime think this to be unduly risk-taking. Either way, one thing is for sure: such posturing is about Khamenei’s narrow political interests and survival and not about the broader long-term national interests of Iran.

JF: U.S.-led economic sanctions have had a significant impact on the Iranian economy and may eventually affect regime stability. The fact of the matter, however, is that even as the United States, Europe, and other countries have significantly tightened sanctions, the Iranian leadership has not felt pressured to slow or halt its nuclear program. Instead, Iran has increasingly taken ever more provocative actions, enriching up to 20 percent and even recently, threatening to produce highly enriched uranium for a supposed nuclear submarine program that could be usable in a nuclear weapon.

Despite several rounds of talks between Iran and the countries of the P5+1 in recent months, Iran has made no concessions. This is the product of a U.S. policy that has not emphasized the importance of regime change in Iran. The Obama administration missed a significant opportunity in June 2009 when the Iranian people took to the streets to protest the fraudulent reelection of President Ahmadinejad. Instead of placing the United States squarely on the side of the protesters, President Obama sided instead with his desired interlocutors in the regime. Assisting the Iranian people who seek to free themselves from the yoke of the mullahs’ repressive rule is the only long-term solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis. The regime’s days are numbered and the United States does have a role to play in helping bring about its collapse and ensuring that the Iranian people are one day free.