As the Obama administration and its European allies prepare to embark on yet another drawn-out and almost certainly futile round of diplomacy with Iran, the lack of a sense of urgency about the nuclear threat is once again obvious. The belief that more negotiations or sanctions can convince Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambition seems to be rooted in the idea that the West has virtually unlimited time to deal with the problem. That’s why so many in the chattering classes mocked Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu when he famously drew a red line across a cartoon bomb when speaking at the United Nations. Some in the foreign policy establishment seem to think Israeli fears about Iran are overblown or merely a ploy by its right-wing government. But it is also rooted in a degree of complacency about Iran’s capabilities. That complacency seemed to underline the optimism about the ability of the Stuxnet virus that was reportedly unleashed on Iran by the U.S. and/or Israel last year even though it was soon apparent that it had only a temporary affect on their nuclear project.
Western overconfidence about Iran’s capabilities should have been shelved after that, as well as the wave of cyber attacks believed to have originated in Iran that crippled computers in the Saudi Arabian oil industry as well as some American financial institutions last fall. The fallout from those attacks led outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to say that the U.S. was vulnerable to a “cyber Pearl Harbor” but in case no one was paying attention, it appears the Iranians have struck again. This time the targets were American banks, and American security experts were clear that the culprit was Iran.
That the Iranians—who are the world’s leading sponsor of terrorist groups—would wish to harm the United States is not a secret. But what seems to surprise some observers is the skill and sophistication that is evident in this cyber offensive. According to the New York Times, the nature of these attacks dwarf what the Russians did to Estonia in 2007 when it attempted to take down its Baltic neighbor’s economy. While the cyber attacks are troubling in and of themselves, they also ought to expose the idea that the Iranians are years away from a bomb as the sort of hopeless optimism that ought not influence the debate about whether to forestall the threat.
While it can be argued that a cyber attack is not evidence of nuclear progress, it does undermine the notion that the Iranians are not advanced enough to do what needs to be done to quickly convert their enriched uranium into a weapon. Iran’s Islamist government has made a massive investment in its scientific resources that are dedicated to the nuclear program and are not unrelated to the advances they have clearly made in cyber warfare. The point is that any nation that can pull off a stunt like the recent attacks on American banks is probably also fully capable of doing what needs to be done to rapidly transform their nuclear program into a functioning threat to the peace of the world.
Far from being irrelevant to the discussion about how to persuade Iran to stand down on its nuclear ambition, the hacking incidents testify to the gravity of the situation and the likelihood that they will get to their goal sooner rather than later. Those in the Obama administration who are prepared to endure another long and ineffective negotiation on the nuclear question should understand that their faith that Iran simply can’t create a bomb this year is more a matter of wishful thinking than hardheaded analysis.