Center for Arms Control

by Laicie Olson [contact information]

The Game is Changing in Iran

Published in The Register Citizen on May 13, 2011

Last year, a powerful computer virus called “Stuxnet” targeted Iran’s nuclear program. By the time it was discovered, the virus had succeeded in setting back the country’s nuclear progress. Now, Iran claims to have identified a new threat. The virus, which Iran is calling “Stars,” may or may not be authentic. But no matter the outcome, Iran’s announcement could be good for the United States.

Regardless of its origin, Stuxnet succeeded in providing Washington with what it needs most in Iran: time.

The program further delayed what was already a troubled nuclear program, clearing the way for what will no doubt be a long diplomatic process.

Paired with the increasing impact of sanctions and turmoil within Iran’s inner circle and the greater Middle East, the effect of another setback could be devastating.

Early assessments indicate that the Stars virus isn’t as powerful as Stuxnet, and some have speculated that it may not exist at all. In this case, Iran’s announcement could be an attempt to explain repeated delays in the opening of its Bushehr nuclear power plant, delays having nothing to do with Stuxnet or similar sabotage.

It could also be a ploy to distract attention from Iran’s inner turmoil and the rapid change sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa, neither of which bodes well for the regime.

Iranian leaders have called the Arab Spring an “Islamic awakening,” but the protest movements have been largely secular, calling for democracy and human rights — two issues on which Iran does not have a stellar reputation.

Beyond that, the protests have taken a turn for the worse, as far as Iran is concerned, threatening to unseat one of its greatest allies in the region, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Iran’s connection with Syria is crucial to its relationship with Hezbollah and, moreover, its ability to project power in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, Washington’s perceived power has grown. News of Osama bin Laden’s death gleaned a less-than-enthusiastic response from Iran’s parliamentarians and media, with some lawmakers and journalists even refusing to accept the veracity of the reports. Though bin Laden was no friend of Iran, the U.S. victory clearly struck a nerve.

Inside Iran, the situation is tense. Food prices have risen almost 25 percent over the past year, twice the overall inflation rate, and in a rare statement of concern, Iran’s oil minister recently noted that the country’s ability to export oil will be at risk without new investment. Despite the regime’s claims to the contrary, sanctions seem to be taking a toll.

Perhaps as a result of increased anxiety, a confrontation recently erupted between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, resulting in the president briefly refusing to carry out his official duties.

The confrontation came after Khamenei rejected Ahmadinejad’s dismissal of Intelligence Minister Heidar Moslehi in an unusual show of disagreement between the two leaders.

Ultimately, Iran looks to be losing ground, and its announcement of the Stars virus is one more problem on a growing list. Either Iran has shown its susceptibility to another damaging virus with the potential to set back its nuclear program yet again, or its announcement is an attempt to draw attention away from those issues it sees as far more damaging.

Either way, Iran seems to be in a more vulnerable position than the last time it sat down at the negotiating table. If the United States and its allies can seize on this growing opportunity, it might eventually spell success.

Laicie Olson 202-546-0795 ext. 2105 lolson@armscontrolcenter.org

Laicie Olson is Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, where her work focuses on weapons proliferation, military spending and global security issues.

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