Eric Alterman has penned an inexplicable and scurrilous column for this magazine touting an act of war against Iran by Israel, namely, the unleashing of the so-called Stuxnet computer worm.
Alterman, who’s a Nation columnist and also a fellow at the Center for American Progress, hails the Stuxnet covert op as an Israeli triumph, and he claims that it is the chief reason Iran’s nuclear program has suffered setbacks. He couples his enthusiasm for this Israeli-engineered accomplishment with a tendentious slap at the Iranian government that resonates with the same bellicose rhetoric of the neoconservatives that he denounces. “This development ought to be a cause for joy among all people outside the Iranian leadership's anti-Semitic, Holocaust-denying circles.” He goes on, including a gratuitous slap at “many of the left”: “The ability of the Israelis to find a peaceful, albeit temporary solution to the problem of Iran's nuclear ambitions—and contrary to the view of many on the left, it is a problem not only for Israel but for the entire world—ought to serve as a warning to Obama and company against listening to any of these incautious warmongers ever again.”
Let’s list the ways this column is wrongheaded:
First, and make no mistake, unleashing a computer worm against a country whose leaders have committed no aggressive act against either the United States or Iran’s neighbors is an act of war. To the extent that the United States is involved in it, and it’s not clear, it is grounds for an Iranian counterattack against America’s own vulnerable computer systems. Washington and Tel Aviv may not like what Iran is doing, but that doesn’t give them the right to conduct acts of war or covert actions against it. That means that not only are computer worms like Stuxnet acts of war but so are assassinations of Iranian scientists—presumably, according to Alterman, something else that ought to bring “joy” even to the churlish, international law–supporting left. (Alterman doesn’t praise the assassinations in his column, but it’s not clear why not, since like Stuxnet they’re presumably, too, joyous events, in his view.)
Not only that, but a worm—once created—can take on a life of its own. It can infect unintended locations, as Stuxnet already has, and even spread uncontrollably. And it can be copied and engineered by others, for other purposes. It's like biological warfare: once uncorked, there's no putting the germs back in the bottle.
Second, although its details are still shrouded in mystery—despite a brilliant New York Times investigative piece on its origins—the Stuxnet worm is hardly the only reason Iran’s nuclear program has run into trouble. Many other factors are in play: the sanctions against Iran have blocked Iran from importing the materials that it needs to maintain and expand the centrifuge program, including carbon fiber (produced, mainly, by Japanese firms that have halted exports to Iran) and maraging steel, both of which are vital to Iran’s program. There are also questions about Iran’s own technological savvy, both in operating the system and in expanding it to more modern and faster centrifuges. And there are questions of political intent, since it isn’t clear why, exactly, Iran has slowed its production of low-enriched uranium, and the International Atomic Energy Agency itself isn’t sure. There’s little doubt that the computer worm has had an effect, as Iran had admitted, but whether it’s a nuisance or a devastating setback isn’t known. Assuming the latter buys into the Mossad’s self-inflated view of its own omnipotence.
Third, Alterman commits an egregious non sequitur by writing that the Stuxnet operation, even if successful, has somehow “saved” us. As Alterman writes, “The Stuxnet worm has helped to save the world from the horrific consequences [of an attack on Iran].” He implies, without a shred of evidence, that President Obama has been “listening to [the] warmongers,” when in fact Obama has repeatedly engaged Iran in the diplomatic arena and, by all accounts—including my own reporting—has no appetite whatsoever for bombing Iran. True, as Alterman says, a motley assortment of neoconservatives such as Daniel Pipes, Reuel Gerecht and others have urged Obama to bomb Iran, and I’ve written extensively about their rug-chewing recommendations myself. But perhaps Alterman hasn’t noticed that Obama isn’t listening to neoconservatives on Iran (or anything else), and that with the partial exception of Dennis Ross, a national security council adviser who is a noted hawk, the administration is notably lacking in anyone who’d do anything but guffaw at the likes of Pipes, Newt Gingrich, Bill Kristol, Jim Woolsey and John Bolton when it comes to policy toward Iran.
Fourth, it should be pointed out, even the economic sanctions against Iran have starkly negative consequences. While the Obama administration—and, I assume, Alterman—seem to think that economic sanctions are working, in fact they create an enormous obstacle to successful talks between Iran and the P5+1 over the nuclear program, as evidenced during the most recent round of talks in Istanbul, Turkey. Perhaps, just perhaps, the targeted sanctions against specific imports used in Iran’s program have been effective, as I’ve pointed out above, but that hardly justifies sweeping and punitive economic sanctions against Iran’s financial industry, its petrochemical, oil and gas industry and other vulnerable sectors of what is, after all, a poor and struggling third-world country.