As 2013 rolls around, many unanswered foreign policy questions remain lingering for President Obama to tackle in his second term. But none are arguably as complex and potentially explosive as Iran and its troublesome nuclear program, which it claims is for peaceful purposes, but most of the international community worries is actually a weapons program in disguise.
Talk of war between Iran and Israel, ever fretting over the possibility of a nuclear armed or even nuclear capable Iran, dominates the discourse on the subject. It’s well noted that a potential war over Iran’s nuclear program in the Middle East would not only likely spread and escalate, but also drag the United States into yet another major conflict in the troublesome region, a predicament unimaginable to an American public tired of war and bloodshed after the invasion of Iraq and ongoing operations in Afghanistan.
Yet with the internal political pressure of the right in Israel pushing for a more concrete response to the Iranian threat, and the clock ticking, the future is as uncertain as ever. Will Israel launch a preventative strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities in 2013? Will another war engulf the region, and the US?
Or are we already there?
Beneath the public surface of six-party negotiations, inspections and reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN nuclear watchdog, and repeated promises from Iran and threats from the U.S., a quieter war is already underway. A covert campaign of assassination, offensive cyber operations, sabotage, and other forms of coercion is being waged among the U.S., Iran, and Israel. But two fundamental questions arise from this unspoken conflict: what effect might this have on rising tensions and the prospects for war in 2013 with Iran? And what precedent might this set, both for future conflicts with pariah states and the future of warfare as we know it? The answer to both of these fundamental questions, whatever they are, might make this complex policy problem more critical than even a nuclear-armed Iran.
The economic warfare, to the contrary, has been very public. The crippling effect of that U.S.-led sanctions are preventing the Iranian regime from meeting basic economic needs, and have induced a critical loss of control of the regime, illustrated by the extreme drop in value of the Iranian currency in October.
Israel is known for not being shy about taking the chance to target members of enemy groups, whether that’s in the Palestinian territories or abroad. The recent war in Gaza shows, however, the potential ramifications of unabashedly opportunistic strikes, and the triggering power they have for escalations into broader conflicts. While this may explain the uncharacteristic silence of Israel and its intelligence service, Mossad, with respect to ongoing operations against Iran, it also showcases the fragility of the situation. Since the mysterious and officially unaccredited targeting of its nuclear scientists began, Iran has not stayed quiet; unofficially, that is. Through its standard proxy group, the Shia Lebanese resistance organization Hezbollah, it struck back at “soft” Israeli targets around the world, including a tour bus in Bulgaria with Israeli citizens, as well as Israeli diplomats in India and Thailand.
But perhaps the most unpredictable element of the West’s covert campaign is the cyber war that has become its centerpiece. The e-invasion first came to light in November of last year with the accidental but highly public discovery of the cyber attack that became known as “Stuxnet,” a cyber instrument of war designed to do unprecedented damage to Iran’s ability to control its uranium enrichment via its spinning centrifuges. The virus, for lack of a better term, showcased the best of U.S.-Israeli joint cyber war efforts, and experts believe it has barely scratched the surface of possibilities in this new and rapidly expanding battle space.
These elements are no longer covert, but the effects are still being discovered and explored on a daily basis. The cyber war is not new, of course. Beginning in 2007 toward the end of the Bush administration, and code named Operation Olympic Games, New York Times reporter David Sanger notes in his new book on Obama’s foreign policy that it was one of the two national security programs the 43rd president urged the incoming Obama to keep — the other being the now expanded drone strikes in Pakistan.
Sanger also notes that Obama is keenly aware of the precedent each swipe of the combat keyboard potentially sets in this battle of new and untested ground, but one must wonder how central the Iranian conflict will be in the waters of future war. And, more than ever, what implications a virtual war will have on the chances of a “real” war, with “real” destruction and “real” death.
The stakes are high, and will doubtless continue to be so. While its exact implications remain to be seen, the covert war against Iran that has been actively taking place has been contained to date. The new year will prove whether it can remain as such. Beyond that, the deeper ramifications of the Iran cyber war might not come to light right away, but when it does, it will prove decisive for the future of war as we know it.