Iran’s Nuclear Program: A Chain of Protracted Conflicts and Covert Attacks

Untitled 506 7Iran has been a thorn in the world’s side, particularly the USA and Israel, since the inception of its nuclear program in the 20th century. Viewed as a potential threat, many covert actions were taken to disrupt Iran’s nuclear progress which would augment America’s diplomatic leverage and constrain Iranian leaders into accepting the limitations and restrictions imposed on the latter’s nuclear activities.

Iran’s nuclear development timeline can be split into two distinct parts. The first part was centralized on the expeditious developments in Iran’s nuclear program, which was initiated in the late 1950s during the time of the Shah, up until Iran’s recent endeavors of the 21st century to enhance the program. The second part was, however, less focused on nuclear incidents but highlighted notorious proclamations surrounding the program, most fervently voiced by the United States and Israel. However, for decades, Iran has been attempting to articulate the nuclear program in a manner that lets it take what it believes is its rightful place in the world.

Two protracted conflicts, initially with Iraq and later with Israel, were the motivating force behind the Iranian leadership to consider nuclear power as a force of deterrence. After the Islamic revolution, friendly relations between Iran and the US turned hostile overnight, exacerbating into a series of unpleasant incidents like the 1979 hostage crisis. Consequently, the deterioration resulted in Iran being added to the terrorism list in 1984 in the wake of the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon. During this period from 1980-1989, the U.S.-supported Iraq against Iran, while sustenance extended by the U.S. to Israel was also a concerning matter for Iran. Furthermore, Iran’s growing number of agreements with Pakistan, China, and North Korea for the development of nuclear programs protracted the conflict between it and America. The U.S. froze Iranian assets and imposed harsh economic sanctions which depreciated Iran’s economy for a while.

Adding fuel to the fire, Iran was called a rogue state for not only being engaged in terrorism but also for developing WMDs. After the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. alleged that Iran had been sponsoring terrorists in the Middle East and that it had links with Al Qaeda. In 2003, the U.S. intervention in Iraq was initially perceived as advantageous for Iran as it overthrew the latter’s long-term rival Sadam Husain; but it turned out to be negative as the pro-U.S. government still existed in Iraq. So, the continued tussle between the regional actors and Iran, and hostile U.S. policies towards it, were the factors that kept Iran motivated to acquire nuclear power status. Up till now, the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea have been perceived as an immense security threat and danger to the United States; to curb them, various initiatives have been taken, including imposition of sanctions, clandestine attacks and eventual sabotage of the nuclear program.

The covert campaign against the Iranian nuclear program was so cautiously executed that its impact verification and accuracy assessment were difficult to ascertain. The program was projected as posing severe security threats to the United States and its allies in the Middle East. Iran’s quest to attain nuclear weapons so as to deter the security threats from the U.S. and its allies, mainly Israel, resulted in counter-proliferation strategies that curtailed the nuclear power acquisition process.

Israel has been using manslaughter as an instrument of dissuasion against adversaries since 1948. The assassination of Iranian engineers and scientists working on the nuclear program was plausibly the first most notorious constituent of the covert attack campaign. Despite the fear of retaliation, five scientists who were a part of Iran’s nuclear program were killed amid 2007 and 2015 in Tehran. Israel claimed to have the upper hand in the killings; however, the U.S. repudiated its involvement and strongly condemned the killings. These murders adversely impacted the nuclear program, curtailing its progress. They decelerated the process and also caused Iran to disburse more resources and efforts for the prevention of Western intelligence penetration in the region.

The second tactic in the covert attack campaign was terrorizing and sabotaging global supply chains and channels that were used by Iran to acquire many of its nuclear components and facilities. International sanctions, restrictions on imports and a weak industrial base left Iran highly dependent on foreign suppliers and the black market to procure advanced instruments and the necessary equipment. The supply chain was breached and sabotaged by the United States, Israel, and their allies. These networks of procurement were highly susceptible to sabotage, subversion and manipulation. The highlight of the sabotage program was providing defective or manipulated parts to Iran via third parties. In 2006, the Natanz enrichment site explosion in Iran that led to the destruction of 50 centrifuges was due to use of manipulated parts that were imported to Iran from Turkey. Additionally, the U.S. and Israel were accused of initiating a series of explosions in Iran that led to the destruction of the country’s oil facilities, gas pipelines, and military bases.

The third most troubling clandestine attack included the cyber-attacks carried out on Iran’s computer network and nuclear facilities. Neither the U.S. nor Israel, or any other state for that matter, accepted responsibility for launching the attacks. For the first time in history, an attack was made to obliterate a state’s infrastructure through the use of cyber technology. The Stuxnet worm prompted the centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment plant to spin out of control. The accelerated centrifugal speed made the motor crash, causing the entire centrifuge to explode and resulted in approximately 1,000 centrifuges being destroyed. Besides the destruction caused, Stuxnet accumulated a great deal of computer network intelligence information which provided valuable information to the United States concerning Iran’s nuclear program.

All the internal and external costs were imposed on Iran through the covert attack campaign and succeeded in restricting the progress of the Iranian nuclear program. Sabotage and clandestine actions seem to have given the United States enough leverage to negotiate and undertake a strategy of coercive diplomacy. These covert attacks pressured Iran into modifying its conduct and asserting itself more to protect its nuclear resources. It also convinced Iran that the U.S. and Israel had several means, both explicit and stealthy, to influence the Iranian regime.

The world calls states like Iran fundamentalist and rogue, but shows partiality when discussing other countries like Israel and United States which pursue their vested interests under any condition by blanketing them as self-defense or national interest. States like Iran, however, are held in contempt for the same pursuits. This has mainly been due to the U.S. propaganda against Iran and its nuclear program, because the monopoly the US has over the international market and the power it enjoys among nations is well recognized. Moreover, Iran, whenever given the opportunity, has failed to properly express its need for attaining nuclear technology and make the world understand how such developments would be in Iran’s national interest, rather than a threat to other countries.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was perhaps the closest the world has gotten to a diplomatic solution regarding the Iranian nuclear dilemma. While this agreement was initially fulfilled by Iran, the United States did not seem to have the same intentions. In 2017 it came towards the termination of the deal and in 2018 the US officially announced its withdrawal from the JCPOA. This dealt a severe blow to all the diplomatic progress made in the years following the agreement. Iran, which had been abiding by the main terms till 2019, announced that it had breached the limit set on its stockpile of low-enriched uranium and also announced an increase in uranium enrichment. Iran’s Foreign Minister clearly stated that the country would scale back its nuclear program and follow internationally set limitations, only if the signatories to the pact fulfilled their obligations and carried out their end of the bargain.

The United States may have to accept Iran as a threshold or ‘virtual’ nuclear power, as neither sanctions nor deterrence is likely to prevent it from developing a nuclear weapons capability. The only possible solution to Iran’s firm stance on nuclear development, and the world’s reservations and concerns with it, is a diplomatic one. The world nations, most prominently the United States of America, must make sincere efforts to hold talks with Iran and resolve the issue that has gone on for far too long. Iran’s national concerns must be safeguarded and the international sanctions and bans on it should be lifted. In turn, Iran must address and remove any doubts or fear the world has about its nuclear program as a sign of good faith and finally come clean. If such steps are not taken, the world will be pushed further into a state of unrest and political instability.

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About Rafia Zahid 1 Article
Rafia Zahid Islamabad based analyst/student of MPhil from National Defence University.

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