The Path To War

From peaceful outreach to pledge of conflict. Inside Barack Obama's struggle to stop an Iranian nuke

  • Pete Souza / The White House

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    Then Obama caught some breaks. in June 2010, Iran admitted that a cleverly designed computer virus, which came to be known as Stuxnet, had infected the computers controlling its uranium-refining centrifuges. During his presidency, George W. Bush had authorized Operation Olympic Games, a cyberattack designed to cripple Iran's nuclear program. The Stuxnet virus was not only destructive but ingenious. As it commanded the Iranian centrifuges to spin themselves into pieces at high speed, it sent messages to the systems and engineers controlling the machines indicating that they were working properly. The U.S. has not claimed credit, but independent analysts who obtained copies of the virus after it accidentally spread from the Iranian computers to the outside world in 2010 say the virus appears to be the work of an American-Israeli collaboration. Many of the details of Operation Olympic Games were first reported by New York Times reporter David Sanger.

    The cyberwar continued. In May 2012, Iran acknowledged that a virus called Flame had infected its computers, turning them into surveillance devices that control microphones and cameras and relay data to the attacker. Another program, called Wiper, erased hard drives at Iran's Oil Ministry last spring. Computer analysts and media reports suggest that the U.S. and Israel are behind the cyberwar.

    Iran suffered other setbacks. At least four Iranian nuclear scientists have been killed in a string of targeted bombings and shootings since 2010. The U.S. has denied involvement. Israel has not commented.

    The other big blow to Iran came from an old-fashioned source: diplomacy. After his failed outreach to Tehran in 2009, Obama managed to rally China and Russia behind tough sanctions at the U.N. in June 2010. Past efforts to apply economic pressure had failed in Iraq, North Korea and elsewhere. This time they really took a bite. From 2010 to 2011, Congress approved measures cutting off much of Iran's banking network from the rest of the world. The bills threatened a boycott of any company or bank that did business with the Islamic Republic's nuclear program or those responsible for it. Most countries, faced with the stark choice of cooperating with either Iran or the U.S., chose the U.S. The business of Iran's blacklisted banks "almost completely dried up," says Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen. Last year sanctions passed by Congress and the European Union helped cut Iran's oil-export market from 20 countries to six and its sales by volume in half. The value of the Iranian currency dropped in half relative to the dollar in 2012. Inflation is at 27.4%.

    The Road to War

    For all the setbacks, though, Iran has continued to expand its nuclear program. In February it announced it was installing new, high-efficiency centrifuges at one nuclear facility. Ahead of recent talks in Kazakhstan, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, gave a rallying speech to the Iranian Air Force, which would be hard hit in any U.S. attack. "Negotiations with America will not solve any problems," Khamenei declared. At this point, few in the West would disagree with that.

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