This commentary was published in The Washington Post on 09/01/2011
"These [Iranian] difficulties slow the timeline, of course," said Yaalon, a former Israeli defense chief. And last Thursday, outgoing Mossad chief Meir Dagan told Israeli reporters that Iran couldn't build a bomb before 2015 at the earliest, in part because of unspecified "measures that have been deployed against them."
A senior Obama administration official gave me a similar account of Iran's troubles. "They're not moving as fast as we had feared a year ago," he said.
Officials won't discuss the clandestine program of cyberattack and other sabotage being waged against the Iranian nuclear program. Yet we see the effects - in crashing centrifuges and reduced operations of the Iranian enrichment facility at Natanz - but don't understand the causes. That's the way covert action is supposed to work.
According to the ISIS report, the virus may have been introduced in early or mid 2009. By late 2009 or early 2010, the study said, Iran decommissioned and replaced about 1,000 centrifuges - far more than normal breakage. The virus hid its electronic tracks, but an analysis by the security firm Symantec showed that the code included the term "DEADFOO7," which could refer to the aviation term for a dead engine and also be a play on James Bond's fictional code name.
Stuxnet was just one of what appeared to have been a series of efforts to disrupt the supply chain of the Iranian nuclear program. "Such overt and covert disruption activities have had significant effect in slowing Iran's centrifuge program," concluded the ISIS.
The delays in the Iranian program are important because they add strategic warning time for the West to respond to any Iranian push for a bomb. U.S. officials estimate that if Iran were to try a "break out" by enriching uranium at Natanz to the 90 percent level needed for a bomb, that move (requiring reconfiguration of the centrifuges) would be detectable - and it would take Iran one to two more years to make a bomb.
The Iranians could try what U.S. officials call a "sneak out" at a secret enrichment facility like the one they constructed near Qom. They would have to use their poorly performing (and perhaps still Stuxnet-infected) old centrifuges or an unproven new model. Alternative enrichment technologies, such as lasers or a heavy-water reactor, don't appear feasible for Iran now, officials say. Foreign technology from Russia and other suppliers has been halted, and the Iranians can't build the complex hardware (such as a "pressure vessel" needed for the heavy-water reactor) on their own.