Death of Stuxnet marks half-hearted US-Iran diplomacy
At the beginning of the month, New York Times journalist David Sanger published an article revealing how Barack Obama, since the beginning of his presidency, had ordered extensive cyber-attacks - code named "Olympic Games" - against Iran's nuclear programme. These operations were initiated during the second term of George W Bush in 2006, but dramatically stepped up during Mr Obama's watch.
The worm Stuxnet, which severely impeded uranium enrichment in Iran's Natanz plant in summer 2010, was in fact a compromised element of this highly classified campaign. Stuxnet - which deactivated itself worldwide according to a pre-programmed code on Sunday - was supported by another data-gathering virus, known as Flame, which was discovered just last month.
Adding to disclosures about the White House's extensive cyber-attack campaign, the British newspaper The Guardian published further evidence that an Iranian "security entity" was behind the bomb attack last February in India that targeted Israeli diplomats. Clearly, covert hostilities are a double-edged sword.
For both revelations, timing matters. Also earlier this month, the IAEA, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, failed to gain access to Iran's Parchin site - suspected to be the site of Iranian military experiments. And last week's conference in Moscow to bring the United States, European powers, China and Iran back to the table for nuclear talks ended in failure, after two inconclusive meetings in Istanbul and Baghdad in April and May.
Bearing in mind previous evidence of protracted covert hostilities between Iran, Israel and the United States, can the diplomatic process ever make progress? If Sanger's report is right, Mr Obama approved cyber-attacks in the first months of his term - at the same time he was publicly favouring engagement with Tehran without preconditions.
At the time, Mr Obama's idea of direct engagement cornered his European allies - the UK, France and Germany - which had demanded the suspension of Iran's uranium enrichment activities as a prerequisite for talks. As Mr Obama "opened his hand" to Tehran, diplomats in European capitals portrayed the new White House as utopian and dangerous for western countries' credibility. The eventual failure of Mr Obama's engagement was seen as a confirmation of his amateurish foreign policy and of Iran's disinclination to cooperate.
But Sanger's revelations bring a twist. Aside from the rhetoric, the Obama administration was maintaining the same policy as the previous US administration: keep expectations low for diplomacy, while hardening covert operations to take down Iran's nuclear programme. While avoiding a direct military confrontation at all costs, Mr Obama found cyber-attacks were a third option that substantially - but not decisively - helped to slow the Iranian programme.
The evidence also sheds light on the complex reality of US-Iran relations in the last four years. Tehran turned down Mr Obama's offer, almost certainly before the scope of the Stuxnet attack could have been known.
But the recent revelations about "Olympic Games" occurred in the middle of a new series of negotiations. For both sides, the intensifying covert operations raise the question: are the diplomatic negotiations just another sideshow that no one takes seriously? Indeed, the extent of US initiatives to covertly deter Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons indicates just how low the diplomatic expectations were all along.
On the Iranian side, the leadership may have cynically engaged in these last diplomatic rounds simply to gain time and to obtain a form of recognition regarding its nuclear ambitions. Tehran may also conclude that US cyber-operations might help to forestall calls for a full-scale military campaign against the country.
This last round of the nuclear talks might have been much ado about nothing - again. This may lend strength to the views of sceptics who claimed that negotiations were doomed to fail from the beginning. But more importantly, it might also have diminished the chances to peacefully solve the Iranian conundrum in the long run.
The window of opportunity for negotiations is slowly closing after these last talks in Moscow. The new economic sanctions enacted by the European Union will go into effect in July; and the United States will be in the full throes of its presidential political campaign. There may be little room for further diplomatic overtures.
The disclosure of "Olympic Games" and Iran's involvement in February's attack in India may have revealed an unsurprising reality: these operations did not render the negotiations irrelevant, because they were barely relevant in the first place.
Jean-Loup Samaan is a researcher at the Nato Defense College. The views expressed in this article are the author's only
Updated: June 26, 2012 04:00 AM