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The perfect storm: Three ways to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions – short of war

Partly by design and partly by happenstance, a three-pronged US strategy for checking Iran's nuclear program and the regime in Tehran is emerging: an unprecedented combination of sanctions, covert action, and a Syria-inspired protest movement within Iran.

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They have also included a series of targeted killings of leading Iranian nuclear scientists – a disturbing dimension of covert operations in which Washington has categorically denied involvement.

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In addition, an explosion in November destroyed an Iranian long-range missile complex (and killed a leading figure in Iran’s missile program). A second blast, reported by Iranian state media in mid-December, wrecked a newly opened steel plant. (Foreign reports said the facility might have been attempting to produce embargoed high-strength “maraging steel” for Iran’s enrichment centrifuges.) Iran has said the missile facility and steel plant explosions were accidents, and a report that yet another explosion had destroyed Iran’s uranium conversion plant at Isfahan on Nov. 28, proved to be false.

Nonetheless, the episodes are a reminder that although President Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta appear, for the moment, to have ruled out an overt military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, covert operations can have a devastating impact of their own. The loss of a stealthy US reconnaissance drone over Iran on Dec. 4 indicates clandestine US activities are continuing.

The third major component of a possible grand strategy for addressing the Iranian nuclear threat might be termed “Operation Arab Spring.” If the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad becomes the next victim of popular revolution in the Middle East, an objective the US is actively promoting, Iran will lose its only national ally in the region. This will intensify its international isolation and hamper its mischief-making through south-Lebanon-based Hezbollah.

More important, however, if the opposition movement in Syria ousts Mr. Assad, in spite of his wholesale slaughter of anti-regime elements, this development will almost certainly stimulate a revival of reform movement protests in Iran. This time, however, Iranian leaders will have fewer tools at hand to suppress an uprising because of the increased risk that unbridled repression could trigger external intervention. With the Iranian economy staggered by the onslaught of ever-tighter sanctions, mass protests and general strikes could bring the regime to its knees.

A new, more moderate, and possibly more secular government in Tehran might continue to harbor nuclear weapon aspirations for the long term. But in its effort to build international good will, end Iran’s isolation, and restore the country’s economic well-being, it would certainly be more amenable to suspending Iran’s sensitive nuclear activities than Iran’s current leaders.

Most estimates project that Iran could have the makings of a small nuclear arsenal in one to three years. But a “perfect storm” may be brewing of unusually debilitating sanctions, intensified covert attacks, and the powerful spur to popular action from the fall of yet another repressive Middle East regime near by in Syria.

This unprecedented combination, if exploited effectively, may be able to deflect Iran from its nuclear course, without the need for direct US or Israeli military intervention. This could be the Obama administration’s unannounced game plan for the months ahead.

Leonard S. Spector is executive director of the Washington, D.C., office of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and has written extensively on nonproliferation issues. His comments are written in his personal capacity; the James Martin Center does not take positions on public policy issues.

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