Talks between Iran and the world powers broke down last year when Iran rejected a plan to ship abroad its stockpile of low-enriched uranium in exchange for reactor-ready fuel.
Since then Iran was hit by the fourth round of sanctions, the relations between Iran and the West have only worsened and gradually reached a new dangerous phase. USA and its allies are determined to maintain or even increase pressure. It seems that they are using all the possible means – negotiations, sanction, 21st century devices such as Stuxnet, but unfortunately also ruthless attacks on Iranian scientists.
In such a gloomy atmosphere the new round of talks between Iran and six world powers took place in December 2010, in Geneva. No wonder that no significant progress was achieved. One of the key efforts of Iran was to open the question of Israel’s nuclear arsenal. Iran wants his „rights“ to be respected. Such demand turned the talks to a standoff. It is unthinkable for Israel to give up on its nuclear arsenal, since they consider the possibility of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons as an existential threat.
At a time when diplomacy is at a standstill, it seems that covert action could be the only means to stop Iran’s nuclear program peacefully. Two recent events support this argument. First, on November 16th 2010 Iran suddenly stopped enriching uranium for as long as seven days. This shutdown is attributed to the Stuxnet worm. And second, two Iranian nuclear scientists were attacked, one was killed and the other seriously injured. But the alleged campaign seems to be a much more long-lasting and thought through plan comprising also other elements, such as abduction of Iranian scientists and sale of faulty equipment.
The Stuxnet worm is a malicious computer program that is said to be precisely calibrated to affect Iranian nuclear centrifuges. It was detected earlier this year in Iran, but also India, Indonesia and other countries. However, Iran denied facing serious technical difficulties. Iranian Vice President Ali Akbar Salehi, who is also the head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, while admitting that Iran was subject of a computer attack, he placed it far in the past. The worm affects the frequency converters made by Siemens, which than cause quick changes in the rotational speed of motors, shifting them rapidly up and down. This is considered to be a recipe for disaster, because on the one hand it can cause the motors to fall apart, but also on the other hand, the worm could be able to disrupt equipment used all around the world to manage transportation, power distribution and communications systems. What is more, the worm allegedly contained two separate digital warheads – one affecting centrifuges and the other steam turbines.
There is no wonder that Iran is hardening its stance, especially since the assassination of Majid Shahriari and the wounding of Fereidoun Abbasi. The two prominent nuclear scientists were targeted by bombs that hit their cars in separate parts of Tehran. The United States are known to have engaged with an Iranian nuclear scientist in the past. Shahram Amiri was reported in March to have defected to the United States, but Iran said he was abducted. In the end he returned to Iran in July. Israel, on the contrary, does not share the aversion to foreign assassinations. In January 2010 a top Hamas militant Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was murdered in a hotel in Dubai. Israel and the United States are thus seen as the most likely sources of both the assassination and the Stuxnet cyber attack. Iran’s intelligence minister also accused IAEA of sending spies disguised as inspectors to collect information about Iran’s nuclear program, which led Iran to ban two U.N. nuclear inspectors from entering the country in June.
The tense situation between Iran and the West was only intensified by the controversy surrounding Wikileaks. According to the cables, the Arab leaders were also expressing fears about the Iranian aspirations. This fact is perceived as a failure or Iran’s foreign policy and was probably one of the reasons why Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fired the Minister of Foreign Affairs Mottaki. The Arab leaders remained silent about the issue, but it was no secret even before that the main nemesis of Iran and basically all the Shias – Saudi Arabia and its King Abdullah – have advocated using military action to stop the Iranian nuclear program. There were also rumors that Saudi Arabia would turn a blind eye and give Israel clear skies in the case of a preventive military strike. This way they would prevent Iran from becoming a regional power and strengthen Saudi Arabia’s position in the region as the leader of Muslim countries. But it seems that the most powerful player in the game – The United States – will not give permission to its allies and right now prefers not using direct force against the disobedient Islamic Republic.