How internet porn and investment scams could bring down Iran’s nuclear program

You don’t need to take Iran’s nuclear facilities out by force. Just pass a virus onto them. EPA

The latest round of chest beating over Iran developing nuclear weapons has seen renewed speculation over the possibility of military strikes on the Islamic Republic’s enrichment facilities.

Certainly if there is one thing the Americans, the Israelis and most of the Arabs agree on, it’s that they don’t want to see Tehran wielding the threat of a mushroom cloud.

But who will bell the cat? And is all this talk of “every option being on the table’ realistic or is it just a Tom Clancy reader’s wet dream?

Ever since the raid on Saddam’s reactor at Osirak the military fantasists and IDF fanboys have been dreaming about some sort of righteous Israeli attack on the Iranian facilities. They’d want to call it something like Operation Gideon’s Trumpet and it would result in the complete destruction of everything bad about Iran.

Forget that one. It’s not going to happen.

Not as easy as you’d think

For a start the Iranians learnt something from Saddam’s failure. That is, don’t put your whole program in one big building with "Bomb This” written on the roof. The Iranian program is dispersed around several sites, with the vulnerable facilities buried deep underground and heavily fortified.

So you could bomb them, but you’d have to co-ordinate raids across the breadth of the country and the likelihood is that you wouldn’t do significant damage anyway. Unlike Osirak, there is no Death Star vulnerability in Iran that will cripple the whole program.

For the Israelis to even attempt the job they would also need to pass over some combination of Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. This means either uninvited (and thus hostile) penetration of that airspace or the unlikely possibility of an Arab country lining up to help.

The Americans have already turned down Israeli requests at letting them fly over Iraq. And whilst the Saudis are just as frightened of Iranian nukes as anyone, they wouldn’t want to be seen as complicit in an Israeli plan to keep themselves as the sole regional nuclear player.

The distances involved are also too great for Israeli capabilities. Their strike aircraft would require in-flight refuelling, perhaps more than once. The idea of several big, fat IDF tanker aircraft loitering over Iraq or Jordan for a few hours is absurd. Of course the Americans could provide this capability, but that would rather undo their attempts at pretending even-handedness in the Middle East.

The American “could” do it

Which brings us to the possibility of the Americans doing the whole job themselves. They’ve got the gear and they wouldn’t have much problem convincing the Sunni sheikhs and princelings to let them fly over their patches of sand. In fact the Wikileaks cables have shown that the Saudis and Israelis have been begging America for years to do something about those wacky ayatollahs and their atomic penchant.

To go ahead, all Obama would have to do in this election year is to convince the American public that it was a good idea to launch a fresh war on a major Muslim nation in a pre-emptive strike against weapons of mass destruction in a rogue state.

This still wouldn’t solve the problem of how much damage could be done through conventional bombing though. So why not just take off and nuke the whole site from orbit? It’s the only way to be sure.

Dear Mr Ahmadinejad, you have been selected today to …

Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad didn’t see the viral attack on his plants coming. EPA/STR

The reality is that a series of nuclear strikes is probably the only way to wipe out the Iranian program in its subterranean bat caves. Plus it would be soooo ironic, right? Obviously though it’s not a big public opinion winner outside of the Fox News audience and making Tehran glow in the dark won’t exactly soothe the “Death to America!” lobby either.

So what’s left? Economic sanctions and diplomacy are always available, but there are also more subtle ways to throw a spanner in the works.

In fact the biggest success so far in retarding the Iranian program has apparently been the same thing that bedevils computer noobs all over the world: a virus.

The discovery last year of a pernicious digital worm called Stuxnet was linked to American and Israeli attempts to sabotage the centrifuges at the Natanz plant. The malware was designed to cause random fluctuations in the speed of the delicate machinery, leading to uncontrolled vibration and damage.

Best of all, this ploy didn’t rely on billions of dollars of military hardware but rather human stupidity. By infecting the public network around the plant, the perpetrators knew it was only a matter of time before some dolt took a dirty USB key from his home and jacked it into the secure network. Some estimate that this infection may have slowed Iranian plans by about two years.

Perhaps the solution to the Iranian nuclear ambition is therefore not to be found in F-16s and bunker busters, but rather in infected porn sites, phishing emails and Nigerian investment scams.