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Operation Sabotage

Our secret war against Iran.

Our efforts to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon seem to be in tatters. President Obama spent his first year in office trying to resolve the matter through détente. He offered negotiations, sent a conciliatory letter to Iran’s supreme leader, and was slow to publicly support the demonstrations that followed the June 2009 elections. Last fall, the United States sponsored an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) deal through which Tehran would have been able to swap out its dangerous spent fuel for uranium suitable to be used in power generation. But this outreach was spurned, and Iran’s nuclear program continued.

Next, the Obama team shifted to a tougher approach—namely sanctions, which were passed by the U.N. Security Council earlier this month. But Tehran has been under international sanctions for a long time now; and, as anyone who has watched Iran policy over the last ten years can tell you, U.N. sanctions are only as good as the enforcement provided by individual countries. How Russia—which has aided Iran in acquiring ballistic missiles and a nuclear reactor—will enforce these latest sanctions is anyone’s guess. Moreover, even if the sanctions are faithfully carried out, there is no guarantee they will have their intended effect. Far more crippling sanctions in the 1990s failed to force Saddam Hussein to fully cooperate with U.N. weapons inspections. Does anyone really doubt that the men in charge of Iran would let their citizenry endure economic pain in order to build a nuclear weapon?

There is, of course, the possibility that the United States or Israel will bomb Iranian nuclear facilities. But this option risks an all-out regional war. And, with Iran’s nuclear facilities scattered and buried deep underground, there is no guarantee that a strike would damage the program enough to be worth the steep geopolitical costs.

And so, the most commonly discussed options on the table range from ineffective to problematic. Yet there is one more possibility for forestalling an Iranian nuke—something that is almost never talked about publicly but that has in fact been central to our Iran policy for years. One Jewish organization leader who has frequent contact with the administration describes the line from the White House and State Department as follows: “You know we don’t have all our eggs in one basket. There are all sorts of means at our disposal that we cannot talk about.” “The clear inference,” this person explains, “is that they are talking about black ops stuff to screw up the Iranian program.”

SABOTAGE HAS ALWAYS been a staple of modern warfare. In World War I, for example, the Germans rigged U.S. and Canadian weapons to explode in New Jersey. But a more complicated genre of technological sabotage dates to the first term of the Reagan administration. A special KGB unit known as Directorate T and its operations wing called Line X had—through dummy corporations and a network of black-market smugglers—managed to obtain computers, airplane parts, and sophisticated machine equipment the Soviet command economy was incapable of producing itself. Luckily for the West, however, a KGB colonel named Vladimir Vetrov was working for French intelligence—and, in thousands of pages of photographed documents that came to be known as the “Farewell Dossier,” he provided detailed information on Line X.

Starting in the early ’80s, the CIA—with the cooperation of the FBI and military—launched a massive operation to feed Line X equipment that was modified to sabotage Soviet industrial and military operations. In 1996, former National Security Council official Gus Weiss published an account of the program, which he had helped conceive, in Studies in Intelligence. “American industry helped in the preparation of items to be ‘marketed’ to Line X,” he wrote. “Contrived computer chips found their way into Soviet military equipment, flawed turbines were installed on a gas pipeline, and defective plans disrupted the output of chemical plants and a tractor factory.”

Ever since the late ’90s—a few years after Western intelligence services became aware of a Chinese sale of yellowcake uranium to Iran—these kinds of operations have been a mainstay of Washington’s policies toward Tehran. The operations are state secrets, not just a “secret” like the use of drones in Pakistan to kill Al Qaeda leaders, something that Obama joked about in his speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Indeed, the government takes these secrets so seriously that it is threatening New York Times reporter James Risen with jail time if he doesn’t reveal his sources for a chapter of his 2006 book, State of War. That chapter disclosed a U.S. intelligence plan from 2000 that sent a Russian nuclear scientist on the CIA payroll to Vienna to hand over flawed bomb design plans to the Iranians.

But, while such sabotage efforts don’t get much public attention, almost everyone familiar with counterproliferation says that these schemes are being directed at Iran’s nuclear program. In New York Times reporter David Sanger’s book The Inheritance, published at the end of the Bush administration, he wrote about sabotage efforts targeting Iran. David Kay, who led the U.N. weapons inspection team in Iraq between 1991 and 1992, as well as the U.S. effort to find those weapons after the 2003 invasion, says he is positive that such sabotage is taking place. “I am certain based on the history of other programs against Iraq and other possible proliferators that activities to make it more difficult to obtain and to operate items crucial to their nuclear weapons program are ongoing,” he explains. “The Israelis have been doing this for years and so have the British.” Michael Adler, an expert on Iran’s nuclear program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, put it this way: “It seems to be clear that there is an active and imaginative sabotage program from several Western nations as well as Israel involving booby-trapping equipment which the Iranians are procuring, tricking black-market smugglers, cyber-operations, and recruiting scientists.” Three current U.S. government officials confirmed that sabotage operations have been a key part of American plans to slow down the Iranian program—and that they are continuing under Obama.

Iran, apparently, has several entities that would be the equivalent of the old Soviet Line X. There are special units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that are devoted to purchasing illicit technology for Iran’s missile program, for example. Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization also has special bureaus that focus on procurement. And Iran has front companies such as the Kalaye Electric Company, which has been sanctioned by the Treasury Department for attempting to purchase specialized magnets needed for centrifuge operations.

Efforts to steer defective products toward Iran have taken a number of forms. For instance, according to a former Mossad operations officer who goes by the alias Michael Ross, in 1998, the Mossad and the CIA developed a plan to sell a supposedly helpful chemical substance—which would, in fact, gum up centrifuges over time—to Iran on the black market.

Then, there was the odd case of the Tinners, a Swiss family of engineers long believed to be a cog in the network of nuclear proliferators organized by Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan. In 2008, Urs Tinner admitted that he had been a CIA asset. And it turns out that he may have played a crucial role in an effort to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program. According to The New York Times and other sources, the Tinners sold high-quality vacuum pumps to the Iranians and Libyans. The pumps are crucial for uranium enrichment because centrifuges must operate inside a vacuum seal. David Albright—the president of the Institute for Science and International Security and the author of a new history of Iran’s illicit procurement of nuclear technology, Peddling Peril—explains that, while the pumps that ended up in Iran and Libya were produced in Germany, they were also worked on by the Oak Ridge and Los Alamos laboratories. These labs, he says, modified the pumps “to bug them or to make them break down under operational conditions. If you can break the vacuum in a centrifuge cascade, you can destroy hundreds of centrifuges or thousands if you are really lucky.” (A senior intelligence official confirmed Albright’s information to me. It should be noted that not everyone agrees that the Tinners were the ones who sold these pumps to the Iranians and Libyans; Albright, for one, isn’t sure.)

Sometimes, these operations do not end well. Ali Ashtari, a high-tech electronics vendor, was hung by Iran in 2008 after he confessed to bugging the equipment of senior Revolutionary Guard figures with viruses and GPS units provided to him by Israel. Ronen Bergman, the top intelligence reporter for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, believes that Ashtari was an “example of how someone— the Iranians claim it’s the Israeli Mossad—tried to sabotage the Iranian nuclear project by covert means, rather than an air strike.” Adds Bergman, “Ashtari was executed, but other entities continue to sabotage the project.”

BUT DO SABOTAGE EFFORTS WORK? In late 2008 and early 2009, the iaea began to see a drop in the amount of low-enriched uranium (LEU) being produced at Natanz, the facility that lies at the center of Iran’s known nuclear weapons program. In the fall of 2008, its centrifuges were producing 90 kilograms a month of LEU. By the end of the year, however, the same centrifuges were producing 70 kilograms of LEU. To be sure, that number was back up to 85 kilograms per month at the close of 2009, and it has been climbing since, to around 120 kilograms a month; but those increases came after the installation of more centrifuges—all of which suggests that at least some of the machines were less efficient than they should be.

Ivan Oelrich, a nuclear scientist and the vice president of the strategic security program at the Federation of American Scientists, estimated in a study this year that the centrifuges are operating at 20 percent efficiency. “We know the average efficiency of the centrifuges is dismal. We don’t know whether it is because of the quality of the individual centrifuges or how they are linked together,” he explains. “We can’t rule out sabotage as one factor leading to these inefficiencies.” Greg Jones, a nuclear analyst at the Rand Corporation, says the Iranians “are operating just under four thousand machines, but they have installed about eight thousand five hundred. Those nonoperating machines have been installed for many months. Why they are not operating is not clear.”

Among people I spoke to, there seemed to be a broad consensus that sabotage was, at the very least, slowing Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon. A senior administration official told me that there was evidence the Iranians are experiencing delays due to “a combination of reasons—some inherent to the nature of the infeasibility of the design and the machines themselves, and some because of actions by the United States and its allies.” Explains David Kay, “History says that these things have done more to slow programs than any sanctions regime has or is likely to do.”

However, the biggest payoff from these efforts may not come from the sabotage itself, but from the psychological effect it could have on Iran’s government. At the most general level, there are probably benefits to keeping Iranian intelligence officials paranoid and off-balance, simply because it can cause them to waste valuable time and resources. This appears to be happening. In 2007, for example, Iran’s state-run news service reported that the national police had arrested a cell of spy squirrels. The next year, Iran reportedly arrested a group of spy pigeons.

But the specific benefit of sabotage is that it makes countries wary of purchasing crucial materials on the black market. In 1982, when Gus Weiss proposed the modified-equipment operation to then–CIA Director William Casey, he said his plan was a rare espionage endeavor that would succeed even if compromised. “If some double agent told the KGB the Americans were alert to Line X and were interfering with their collection by subverting, if not sabotaging, the effort, I believed the United States still could not lose,” Weiss wrote. “The Soviets, being a suspicious lot, would be likely to question and reject everything Line X collected.” The same principle now holds with Iran. According to the senior administration official, sabotage “forces the Iranians to make machine parts themselves.” And that, in turn, can slow down the process of producing a nuclear weapon.

IN THE END, HOWEVER, there are almost certainly limits to how much the West’s sabotage campaign against Iran can accomplish. “These programs are enough to cause the Iranians some problems, but they don’t imperil the Iranian drive to enrich uranium,” says the Wilson Center’s Adler. Indeed, Adler thinks the inefficiencies at the Natanz plant could be chalked up to the inexperience of the scientists or the poor quality of the design, rather than sabotage.

The view among most officials and observers seems to be that sabotage is helpful but not, on its own, the answer. Uzi Dayan, a retired major general in the Israel Defense Forces and a former national security adviser to both Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak, put it this way: “At the end of the day, this approach can delay the program and slow it down. It can put obstacles in the way. But it cannot prevent Iran from achieving their goal.” “Every president since Clinton has tried covert operations to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program. Bush did it, Obama is doing it. The problem is, it’s not a substitute for sound policy,” says Henry Sokolski, the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. “It is a holding action. What they are not facing is that you have to somehow usher this group of rulers off the stage of history. It is a tough thing to do, it’s not clear how you do it, and they have chosen not to try.”

Correction: This story originally credited David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, as the source for the anecdote about the Tinners selling vacuum pumps to Iran. It should have credited The New York Times and other sources. While Albright believes that modified vacuum pumps were sold to Iran, he does not know whether the Tinners were involved.

Eli Lake is a contributing editor of The New Republic. This article appeared in the July 22, 2010, issue of the magazine.

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