Iran’s confirmation that the computers of a number of their officials have been attacked by a new virus will give further ammunition to those who argue that the nuclear threat from the Islamist regime can be neutered by intelligence coups and technology. Like the Stuxnet virus which supposedly flummoxed Iran’s scientists last year, the new Flame worm may cause some havoc in Tehran and the nuclear facilities scattered around the country. And it will give Western and Israeli intelligence agencies and government officials a chance to crow about their capabilities, much as Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon did today.
But even if this is Israel’s handiwork and the damage it does is greater than then the mere temporary inconvenience wrought by Stuxnet, no one should be fooled into thinking a virus will ultimately stop Iran’s nuclear program if the regime is determined to persist in its goal. Any technological attack will spawn a defense and a counter-attack. Though Flame may give Israel and/or the West a temporary advantage in the cyber war being conducted with Iran, it cannot by itself or even in combination with other covert activities such as assassinations, solve the problem. That is only possible by diplomacy or force.
Israel’s public skepticism about the P5+1 talks being conducted by the West with Iran about its nuclear ambitions is well-founded. Even though the United States and its European, Russian and Chinese allies deserve credit for not folding completely during the second round of talks last week in Baghdad, the Iranians continue to refine uranium and to get closer to a stockpile that could create a bomb. Iran has every expectation that if it hangs tough, either President Obama or the European Union will crack sometime this summer and abandon plans for an oil embargo in exchange for an inadequate deal that would preserve Tehran’s nuclear program.
Unlike the West’s faltering diplomacy, a course of action that accomplishes nothing except to prevent Israel from attacking Iran, it must be conceded that computer viruses at least have the virtue of slowing the regime’s nuclear progress, though how much, we don’t know. But we do know that for all of the hoopla about Stuxnet, such delays were temporary and strategically insignificant. We can hope for better from Flame, but the odds are it will be just a pinprick, not a decisive stroke. As much as such schemes allow us hope for a solution short of armed conflict, unless a miracle happens and diplomacy succeeds, sooner or later the West and Israel will be faced with a choice between force and living with a nuclear Iran. Like Stuxnet, Flame may put off that day, but it cannot prevent it from happening.