The evidence compiled by surveillance cameras installed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at the nuclear plant in Natanz, Iran, appears to tell the story of how the Stuxnet computer virus played havoc with that country’s nuclear ambitions. Records of the IAEA obtained by the Washington Post document the damage done to the equipment at Natanz. According to the Post, 10 percent of the plant’s 9,000 centrifuges used to enrich uranium had to be dismantled. Stuxnet’s success has caused a great many people who had been deeply concerned about the threat posed by the Iranian nuclear project to relax. The harm done to Iran’s equipment combined with the economic sanctions imposed by the international community ought to have dealt Tehran’s hopes for a nuclear weapon a terrible blow and put off for the foreseeable future the need for the West to act to stop the project before it was too late.
But the IAEA cameras tell a slightly different story. While the evidence compiled by the nuclear-watchdog agency proves that the Stuxnet attack was successful, it also shows that the damage was quickly repaired. Somehow, despite the sanctions and the ban on selling nuclear equipment to Iran, the damaged centrifuges were replaced almost as quickly as they were taken offline. That means the Iranians were able to continue using their centrifuges to produce low-enriched uranium, the material used to make fuel for nuclear power plants. After more processing, the machines can produce the highly enriched uranium used in nuclear bombs. While Stuxnet attacks in 2009 and 2010 briefly caused the shutdown of Natanz for repairs, it was back online before long.
While these attacks may have, as the Post reports, shaken the confidence of the Iranians in their ability to defend their nuclear plants, the notion that the virus had solved the West’s Iranian problem was always a delusion. At best, it has delayed them a bit, but the IAEA evidence makes it clear that the Khamenei/Ahmadinejad regime’s commitment to their goal of a nuke is such that cyberattacks won’t be enough to derail them.
This is a crucial point because the assumption in Washington and even in Jerusalem lately has been that Stuxnet has given the world some real breathing room before an Iranian nuke becomes imminent. That belief lessened the pressure on the Obama administration to press for the sort of draconian international sanctions that might actually bring Iran to heel. It also reduced the chances that Israel might feel forced to act unilaterally to spike the existential threat that an Iranian nuke would pose to the Jewish state. But if, as we have now learned, Stuxnet is nothing more than a delaying tactic that will win us months rather than years before this threat is realized, then the West must re-evaluate the optimistic forecasts of no Iranian nukes before 2015 that we have been hearing lately.
From his first moment in office, Barack Obama has sought to avoid confrontation with Iran. He wasted 2009 on a feckless attempt at “engagement” of the Iranians and 2010 on a campaign for sanctions that resulted in a mild program of restrictions that, despite U.S. claims, the Iranians have openly mocked as ineffective. Had Stuxnet’s impact been enough to put the Iranian program on hold, it might have brought an end to the whole issue as a matter of concern, at least for the next couple of years. But if the IAEA evidence is correct, then the optimistic forecasts about Tehran’s prospects must be thrown out and replaced with an evaluation that puts the need for either serious sanctions or the use of force back on Washington’s front burner. Far from allaying our fears and ending the discussion about drastic action, Stuxnet may have made it clearer than ever that neither the United States nor Israel can afford to sit back and wait until Iran has obtained the ultimate weapon.