As Tensions Rise, Some See 'Covert War' With Iran

U.S. plans for sanctions on Iran are escalating what some analysts call a covert war between the two countries. Patrick Clawson, director of the Washington Institute's Iran Security Initiative, and Columbia University's Gary Sick discuss how the Obama administration should deal with Iran.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Earlier this month, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta described an Iranian nuclear weapon as a red line - unacceptable to the United States; presumably, cause for war. But many analysts believe that a clandestine war is already under way as Israel and the U.S. try to slow down Iran's nuclear program.

Just last week, an Iranian nuclear scientist was assassinated in Tehran, at least the fourth to be killed over the past couple of years. Late last year, huge explosions destroyed an Iranian missile base, and various types of sabotage have disrupted Iran's uranium enrichment facilities.

Nobody knows for sure who's responsible. Iran blames Israel, the U.S. and Britain. If you have questions about the ethics and goals of this clandestine war, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Tuesdays with Dorie - bakers alert. But first, the covert war with Iran, and we begin with Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he directs the Iran Security Initiative. He's kind enough to join us today here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for coming in.

PATRICK CLAWSON: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And you've been quoted as saying that a lot of people have asked you when Israel is going to attack Iran, and you say two years ago.

CLAWSON: What's going on now - with assassinations and cyberwar - is, wantonly, acts of war. And when you combine that with the U.N. sanctions, which block Iran's access to many of the key materials and technology that it needs; the U.S. program of encouraging defections from Iran's nuclear program - one of their key scientists showed up in Washington last year, before he made the bad decision to return; and the Swiss government had to reveal the U.S. role in sabotaging equipment going to Iran after they arrested some Swiss for selling things to Iran, and then let them go.

CONAN: Double embarrassment - they had to reveal that the Swiss were selling equipment for Iran's nuclear program, and then that those pieces had been doctored by the United States to fail.

CLAWSON: Well, the Swiss government made huge publicity announcements about the arrests of these people and saying, this kind of activity cannot be allowed in Switzerland. And then a month later, when they let the people go, the Parliament said, hey, what's going on?

And the Swiss had to acknowledge that all of those parts that had been sold to Iran had been shipped via Los Alamos - which is not the most logical route.

CONAN: Not the most logical route. And then there is the Stuxnet worm, the computer virus that appears to have, in some cases, seriously afflicted Iran's nuclear uranium enrichment facilities.

CLAWSON: It also appears to be the gift that keeps on giving, in that it appears that there are still other parts of the Stuxnet virus which can be - which may be activated later on.

CONAN: And so Iran's nuclear program keeps trying to get stalled, and that's the goal here, no?

CLAWSON: They've been at it for 24 years. That's a long time. And as one senior U.S. government official puts it to me, if 24 years from now they're still at it, that will constitute success.

CONAN: That will - in other words, some people say Iran is as little as a year away; some say longer than that. Some question whether Iran is mounting a nuclear weapons program at all; that's another point. But presumably, if they are, the goal is to stretch that time period out as long as possible with acts of war?

CLAWSON: Look, it would be much better if we could engage with Iran and get them to agree to suspend their program, as the Security Council has called on them to do. It would be much better if the Iranians would agree to engage with the Obama administration in official bilateral talks - as for years they said they wanted to do in the United States. And if those things don't happen - well, then we have to look around for alternatives.

CONAN: And this alternative, this clandestine war, preferable to all-out war?

CLAWSON: I would certainly think so. I mean, all-out war has - can go all kinds of ways that would be quite terrible to think about.

CONAN: Let's bring another voice into the conversation. Gary Sick, a senior research scholar at Columbia University's Middle East Institute; he's also professor of international affairs there at Columbia; joins us by phone from his office in New York. Nice to have you back on the program.

GARY SICK: Glad to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And does this amount to warfare by another name?

SICK: I think it amounts to warfare, period. The - and actually, I would like to go beyond just the clandestine part because I think there's another kind of stealth attack being mounted, that we tend to dismiss. But first of all, to look at the cyberwarfare - indeed, there's no question that the Stuxnet worm has had an impact on Iran's centrifuges, though from all appearances they seem to have overcome that, and they are now producing enriched uranium once again. Maybe they had - they suffered some problems from it, but you know, they continue to keep on producing.

What was interesting to me was a report today that Israel is under cyberattack. El-Al Airlines and the stock exchange are both suffering denial-of-service attacks. And a - what claims to be a Saudi hacker named Ox Omar has released thousands of Israeli credit card names and numbers and so forth, on a public website.

My point here is that this is something that can actually cut both ways. And, you know, we've been patting ourselves on the back -very much so - about this brilliant cyberattack of Stuxnet but, you know, nobody seems to ask the question of whether there isn't going to be some blowback from that - because of all the fields in the world where you can play, probably the cyberwarfare field is the levelest.

Iran actually has a capacity to hit us almost as great as our capacity to hit them. And that is something which I really wish we had thought about a little bit more, before we started that process.

CONAN: Indeed, there was some suspicion with the Venezuelan consul in Miami - may have been involved, allegedly, in a plot with Iranian officials to do exactly that, Gary Sick - be involved in some cyberattacks or preparatory to some cyberattacks against the United States. But if it slows down the Iranian nuclear program, is not that a benefit?

SICK: Well, it all depends. You see, if this had stopped the Iranian nuclear program, then perhaps you could make that argument. The most it did was force them to stop, re-gear, clean up their system, and then go back to work. And that was a matter of months - I mean, literally, a matter of weeks or months by the time they recovered from the thing.

Now, there may be more; as Patrick Clawson said, more pieces of this ready to go into action later on. But that - but if - for instance, the power plant in your town, in your neighborhood, suddenly goes out of control and blows up. Would you regard that as a reasonable price to pay for that temporary slowdown of the centrifuges in Natanz?

And there will be no fingerprints left on that if it happens. And in fact, you know, our own cybersecurity people, you know, are talking all the time about how truly vulnerable we are, because our entire system works on the Internet and involves that kind of activity.

So you know, I'm a little concerned. And sometimes on these things, we act as if we are able to function with total impunity - we can do what we like, but nobody can do it to us. An Israeli commentator just yesterday made the remark that these assassinations of Iranian scientists - who, at least the Iranians certainly believe are Israeli hits; which, you know, we'll never be able to prove it, probably - what if they started assassinating Western scientists?

So you've got a Western, you know, convention of scientists on some subject and suddenly, some of them are bumped off. There's no security, for the most part, around these events. Is that something that we've either thought about, or we're willing to accept? Maybe the people who carried out the operation are, but the people who are likely to be the targets may not have the same view.

CONAN: Patrick Clawson, that would certainly be described as an act of terrorism.

CLAWSON: Yes. And look, Israel already faces a situation in which Iran provides weapons and financing for terrorist groups that are trying to kill innocent Israelis all the time and unfortunately, succeed all too often. I'm talking about Hezbollah and Hamas.

And so Israel feels that Iran's shooting at Israel, and those who are shooting shouldn't be surprised to get shot back at. So I don't think it would be appropriate for the United States to be in a campaign of assassinations with the Iranian nuclear scientists, but Israel is in a different situation.

CONAN: And...

CLAWSON: We - by the way, the United States is in a vigorous campaign of assassinations. We do it through Predator drones, including against our own citizens - Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, for instance. Mr. Awlaki was never accused of having picked up a gun, but we felt it was all right to kill him without any trial.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. We're talking about the covert war against Iran's nuclear ambitions - 800-989-8255; email talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Tom, Tom with us from Greenville in North Carolina.

TOM: Thank you, yes. I was wondering who the supporting countries or states - that are supporting Iran's goals to become a nuclear power, either through just energy or nuclear weapons.

CONAN: Well, those are two different things, and very different things. Patrick Clawson, if you're talking about nuclear energy - clearly, Russia, which provided the reactor at Bushehr, which is a nuclear energy plant; if you're talking about nuclear weapons - well, you're talking about a rather murkier group of countries, including Pakistan, North Korea?

CLAWSON: Well, we don't know about North Korea. We know very little about what North Korea may or may not be doing with Iran's nuclear program, and it's very troubling. There was a case of a Ukrainian scientist who the IAEA pointed out was providing considerable assistance to...

CONAN: But unclear that he was acting on the behest of the Ukrainian government.

CLAWSON: Exactly, correct. And indeed, he felt that he was helping with a process for producing artificial diamonds, which is something that he has long been convinced is how this technology can be used. Not everybody else agrees that that's the principal use you'd make of his technology. He spent many years in the Soviet nuclear program.

CONAN: But at this point, Iran's nuclear program may not need any more assistance from the outside.

CLAWSON: Not clear. If I were an Iranian leader, I'd be kind of nervous about how well my systems would work at actually making highly enriched uranium. No one's ever been able to make highly enriched uranium with the kind of centrifuges that Iran has got working.

CONAN: Tom, thanks very much for the call.

TOM: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking about the clandestine war against Iran's nuclear program. Our guests: Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute, where he directs the Iran Security Initiative; Gary Sick, a senior research scholar at Columbia University, and professor of international affairs there; 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Last week, motorcyclists streaked by a car, attached a magnetic bomb. The blast tore the silver Peugeot apart and killed the nuclear scientist riding inside, and his driver. The scientist, described as a chemistry expert, director of Iran's main uranium - nuclear enrichment facility. It also fatally wounded his driver.

Iran's atomic energy organization condemned the bombing as a heinous act, and vowed to continue down the nuclear path. As the U.S. and its allies lean on Iran to abandon nuclear ambitions through diplomacy and sanctions, a covert plan to pressure Iran seems to be gaining steam.

If you have questions about the ethics and goals of this clandestine war, give us a call, 800-989-8255; email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org; click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute; and Gary Sick, of Columbia University's Middle East Institute. Gary Sick, you mentioned earlier that this clandestine warfare is just part of the campaign against Iran. The other part is these economic sanctions, which are ratcheting ever higher.

SICK: Yes, you know, we've been using sanctions against Iran - usually, financial sanctions, or sanctions against their energy industry - we've been doing it - the United States has been doing it very actively since 1995. We had some sanctions on Iran before that, but those were the directed ones against their energy industry.

And so we started in 1995 to sanction their industry, and oppose Iran. At the time we started those sanctions, Iran had not one, single centrifuge turning in the country. Today, after more than 16 years of gradually increasing sanctions, Iran now has at least 8,000 operational centrifuges, and a considerable store of low-enriched uranium. To me, that's a description of a failed policy.

And what we have done at each stage is increase the sanctions because the last ones didn't work. You finally get to a point where you can't tell sanctions from warfare. The sanctions that the Congress has imposed now, in the latest defense authorization bill, basically call for the United States - for all the countries of the world but the United States, in particular, to force Iran's banks not to be able to - not to be able to sell their oil, so that Iran basically is cut off from its oil sales completely. That's 50 percent of Iran's income.

Now, I think most countries who were faced with a threat of 50 percent of their national revenues being cut off would regard that as a hostile act, no matter how you look at it. And I think we need to remember, too, that if those sanctions were actually successful - they actually succeeded in cutting off Iran's oil exports - Iran would then have no motivation to not close the Strait of Hormuz.

Right now, they can't close it, and they would not even be tempted to close it because their own oil goes out that way. But if their oil is cut off, then probably you can assume that Iran is not going to sit on its hands and simply, you know, moan its fate. It's going to probably do something.

And there are things that Iran could do to interfere with the oil-shipping in the Persian Gulf, which is a huge part of the world's oil supply. So I think, again, we need to think about what the consequences are of some of the things that we're doing.

CONAN: Patrick Clawson, the Iranians have always said if we can't ship oil through the Strait of Hormuz, nobody can ship oil through the Strait of Hormuz.

CLAWSON: Well, the U.S.'s goal is to get back to negotiations. You talk to anybody in the Obama Iran team, and they portray these sanctions as an instrument. And the objective is to get back to negotiations, to engage with Iran and to reach an agreement with the Iranians.

And so it's not like the Obama administration is a bunch of warmongers; quite the contrary. They see the way this dispute's going to be settled is through a negotiation. And the question is, what can they do to get negotiations started?

Obama offered negotiations when he came into office, extended a hand of friendship. And the Iranians, who for years had said that they wanted to have negotiations without preconditions with the U.S. government, have done exactly nothing to take that up.

And that's very frustrating to the Obama team because their objective's always focused on, how do we get back to negotiations? It's been more than a year since the last time that Iran sat down with the countries negotiating about the nuclear issue - that's the so-called P5-plus-1, the permanent five members of the United Nations plus Germany. And nobody would be happier than the Obama administration if there could be fruitful discussions again.

Now, there's talk about a new round of negotiations. The Iranians claim that they're interested in this. Let's hope that's true. Let's hope that this time when they show up, they do something other than talk about their principles for how to manage the world - and every other topic except the nuclear matter.

CONAN: Let's go next to Tony(ph), Tony's on the line from San Antonio.

TONY: So many questions, Neal, so little time.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TONY: One point - actually, I have two questions. First, should they weaponize their nuclear program, how far away do they - do your panel guests feel they are from actually being able to deliver those weapons? And where is the rest of the Middle East? Where is Saudi? Where is Turkey in this equation, should we say - this negotiation equation? They have a more vested interest in a nuclear-free Iran than the United States does.

CONAN: A couple of interesting questions, Tony. Delivery systems - Patrick Clawson, that mysterious explosion that devastated a missile-development facility outside of Tehran, and killed a general. The Iranians initially said it was an accident, and it's increasingly - a lot of people think it was an act of sabotage.

CLAWSON: Well, Iran has a pretty sophisticated missile program, which they're - working away at it. However, it probably is going to be several years before they could have a nuclear warhead that would fit on a missile that they could deliver, say, to Israel. And that's the reason that U.S. officials - and increasingly, Israeli officials - are reasonably confident that Iran's not going to rush to assemble a nuclear device, a primitive, bomb-like thing which they could explode - similar to what the North Koreans did. But instead, Iran's going to wait until it can actually have a warhead on a missile.

CONAN: The whole package.

CLAWSON: The whole package, and that would certainly be several years from now.

CONAN: And in terms of its neighbors - Gary Sick, Saudi Arabia is a rival to Iran; I think that's clear on any number of fronts. Turkey, though - that's another question.

SICK: Yeah, I think the neighbors each have their own foreign policy, and Iran has its own foreign policy toward those neighbors. I would like to address that first part of the question.

CONAN: Sure, go ahead.

SICK: Because with regard to Iran actually building a nuclear weapon, the IAEA report, even the most alarming one - the most recent one - did not say that Iran was building.

CONAN: No smoking gun.

SICK: There really isn't. And I was really struck the other day when Leon Panetta, who is now the secretary of Defense but was just not long ago the head of the CIA, he was asked point-blank, is Iran building a nuclear weapon? And his answer to that was, no.

And I thought that was really - that's the first time I've heard a senior U.S. official be so blunt and straightforward about it. Now, one can be concerned that Iran might change its mind and start building a nuclear weapon, but they haven't done it thus far. And it's the best judgment of the United States, and the intelligence services elsewhere, that they haven't done.

So to me, that's the starting point for analysis - which is basically, we do have quite a bit of time. Iran has been at this nuclear process since - call it 1985, when they probably made their first decision to get involved in a nuclear program. Here they are, all these years later, and they don't have a nuclear weapon.

No other country in the world, including Pakistan, which was really - had very little industrial capability, from the time they decided to build a bomb, they had one in hand within 12 years. Iran has been at this now for over 20 years, and we still - they still don't have a bomb.

I think you can either draw the conclusion that Iran is simply stupid, totally incompetent and have no ability to do these things; or you can draw the conclusion that in fact, contrary to popular belief, they really haven't been in a hurry to actually build a bomb. They've been interested in building a nuclear capability.

And these two things get confused in people's minds. I think it's important to keep those separate and to realize that in fact, there is time. And I do agree with Patrick that in fact, the answer to this is negotiations. I think we've seen some examples of negotiation in the past. I must add what Patrick said - that we proposed a swap solution for some of the uranium in 2009, the Turks and the Brazilians, at our - with our support, actually negotiated such an agreement with Iran, and we turned it down in 2010.

Why? Because it was getting in the way of our sanctions regime. And basically, if you let the sanctions drive things, then our objective is not to get to the negotiating table - which Iran was clearly offering at that point - but rather, to get more sanctions. We have to really keep it clear in our own head.

And I think if you look at what the Congress is doing right now, it's hard to read the new sanctions laws as being aimed to getting back to the negotiating table. It's intended for regime change. It is intended to basically, force Iran into a submissive position. And I think that is probably a very dangerous way to go about doing our business.

CONAN: In there, you may have heard when Gary Sick was talking about why it had taken Iran so long to not develop a nuclear weapon, and you may have heard Patrick Clawson say sanctions in the background. But any case, let's see if we get another caller in on the conversation. Bill is on the line from Little Rock.

BILL: Hello. Thank you. And I hope everyone is doing well today.

CONAN: Thank you.

BILL: My question and - is - concerns the assasinations, and why it appears as though it's assumed that they're being done by other countries and their operatives, as opposed to some group in Iran that maybe doesn't want Iran to have nuclear weapons and they want to stop it. Is there any possibility of that whatsoever?

CONAN: Patrick Clawson, I've heard some speculation that maybe some of these scientists were taken out by the Iranians themselves, for various reasons. Maybe they were about to defect, or something like that. But I've not heard that speculation, as Bill mentions, that this might have been an internal group.

CLAWSON: Well, Iranians love conspiracy theories, and there are lots of conspiracy theories out there. But what we do know about these assassinations is that they were terribly professionally conducted. And that's not been typical of political assassinations inside Iran. There have been lots of assassinations inside Iran, but they've been done by pretty basic techniques - like, you know, shooting a gun, or a knife - whereas these assassinations were really, very sophisticated. For one thing, the people got away.

And the agency which has used that kind of sophisticated assassination technique quite a bit in - around the world has been the Mossad. There was the episode in Dubai; a guy got caught on cameras. There was an episode in Oman a few years ago, which they botched. But this is typical of the Mossad's technique. So I would say that the Mossad starts out as the usual suspect. Now, sometimes, the obvious suspect is not the guilty party. But boy, I would start out with the Mossad as the obvious suspect.

CONAN: And cui bono - who benefits?

CLAWSON: It's quite clear to see how the Israelis benefit. I mean, after all, it's the former head of the Mossad who has been the loudest voice inside Israel, saying there's no reason that Israel needs to have airstrikes against the Iranian nuclear program. The quiet subtext, which is an open secret in Israel, is what he's saying is: My agency solved this problem. We took cared of it; we've solved it. No reason for the military to get involved.

SICK: Neal, could I add a comment on this?

CONAN: Please.

SICK: I - with response to the question about, could it be an internal group? Obviously, I agree with Patrick that Iran is full of conspiracy theories. But in reality, in January of 2011 - just a year ago - Iran actually announced that it had captured the killers of the – of a previous assassination; that they were people who had had training by, you know, by Mossad; that they had been trained by - this got very, very little coverage in the American media.

And it may not be true. I mean, they may be making this up. But at least, I think, there's no question that the Iranians truly believe that this is an outside hand that is doing this. And I think they've got very good reason for that. The conspiracy theories that somehow, the Iranians are doing it themselves - and I agree with Patrick very much, that the kind of sophisticated techniques are not typical of little groups that happened to form in a country like Iran, and carry out a really sophisticated assassination.

CONAN: Bill, thanks very much for the call. Gary Sick, of Columbia University; Patrick Clawson, of the Washington Institute. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And Gary Sick, I wanted to ask you further about a piece you just wrote today, where you looked at what seemed to be very divergent statements from the Obama administration. Yes, on the one hand, Secretary of Defense Panetta says Iran is not trying to build a nuclear weapon. On the other hand, to build one is a red line; to close the Straits of Hormuz is a redline. There are bellicose statements coming. And at the same time, you suggest three-dimensional chess. What are you talking about?

SICK: It seems to me that the Obama administration has three, separate problems. One is that they really would like to get - that they worry very much about getting involved in a shooting war - which actually, there's almost nothing good that could come of that for the United States, for Iran, for the region - anything. So I think they don't want to get dragged into a war. The second thing is, they've got a problem because Israel continues to threaten an independent strike on Iran.

And I think the administration has to worry about that because if it happened, we would be dragged into it as well. And the third thing is that there's an election going on. And Obama has to worry about running for re-election under the charge that he's being soft on Iran, which already people are saying, quite openly, on the Republican side.

CONAN: With one exception. Go ahead.

SICK: So this is a kind of three-dimensional chess problem, that he's got multiple messages. So when you hear two or three different things coming from the same mouth in the Iranian - in the Obama administration, one way to read that is that they're delivering messages to different people. And it can be very, very confusing to listen to. But that's at least one interpretation of why you're hearing so many dissident voices in the administration.

CONAN: Patrick Clawson, we may have years before a deliverable nuclear weapon, if that's Iran's goal - but maybe not so long if those sanctions take effect in the next few months.

CLAWSON: Well, we could be at a testing moment between two different theories, one theory being that the Obama administration, that by pressing Iran harder and harder, we will get them back to the negotiating table for fruitful negotiations. And the other is the theory of the Iranian government, that they can outlast any kind of sanctions. And it does look like we're coming to - well, we're going to find out this year which of those two theories is correct.

CONAN: Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute, where he directs the Iran Security Initiative, joined us here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for your time. And Gary Sick, senior research scholar at Columbia University's Middle East Institute, where he's also a professor of international affairs at Columbia, with us by phone from New York. Gary Sick, nice to have you with us today.

SICK: Thank you very much, Neal.

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