So much for Stuxnet, it would seem. Ever since the news broke last summer, much has been made of the mysterious computer worm that has ravaged Iran's nuclear program. Observers have billed the malicious software (which circumstantial evidence suggests was developed by Israel, the United States, or both) as the "world's first cyber weapon," and as a nail in the coffin of Iran's atomic ambitions.
The former it may indeed be. There's certainly no mistaking the revolutionary effect that Stuxnet has had on warfare in cyberspace - a medium which, years of Hollywood moviemaking notwithstanding, has only emerged as a real arena of conflict comparatively recently. But, when it comes to derailing Iran's nuclear progress, the impact of the notorious cyber worm may end up being much more limited than many would like to think.
Thus, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), a Washington-based think tank specializing in nuclear proliferation, has estimated that between 2009 and 2010, Stuxnet succeeded in disabling close to 1,000 of the existing 9,000 uranium enrichment centrifuges at the Natanz facility in central Iran.
But, ISIS notes, the effect of the malware has been limited, and is most likely transitory.
"Assuming Iran exercises caution, Stuxnet is unlikely to destroy more centrifuges at the Natanz plant. Iran likely cleaned the malware from its control systems," said a Feb. 15 ISIS study, "Stuxnet and Natanz."
Nor has Stuxnet substantially slowed the pace of Iran's enrichment.
"[The Iranians] have been able to quickly replace broken machines," one Western diplomat in the know tells the Washington Post in a Feb. 16 article. "The Iranians appeared to be working hard to maintain a constant, stable output" of low- enriched uranium.
The U.N.'s nuclear watchdog has come to similar conclusions. In a recent interview with the Washington Post, International Atomic Energy Agency chief Yukiya Amano disclosed that Stuxnet has had only a temporary impact on Iran's ability to produce enriched uranium, and that the Islamic Republic's stockpile of enriched uranium is growing anew.
Despite the damage it suffered from Stuxnet, Amano says, "Iran is somehow producing uranium enriched to 3.5 percent and 20 percent" and doing so "steadily, constantly."
Stuxnet, in other words, may have bought the international community a bit more time to formulate a plan for dealing with Iran's nuclear program. But it has stopped far short of meaningfully derailing the country's nuclear endeavor.
The damage to international diplomacy, on the other hand, has been greater than most people think, because news of the worm's impact on Iran's nuclear infrastructure has bred a dangerous sense of complacency among the United States and its allies.
The outgoing head of Israel's Mossad foreign intelligence service, Meir Dagan, even went so far as to tell the country's parliament in early January that, as a result of Stuxnet and other asymmetric methods, Iran now won't be able to field a nuclear capability before 2015. Israeli officials have since walked back these estimates, and now say Iran could have nuclear weapons within just "a year or two" of making the decision to do so.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, is showing signs of slowing the pace of its sanctions policy. Having passed the most comprehensive economic measures ever levied against the Islamic Republic last summer, the White House is now deferring additional pressure on the Iranian regime.
In a number of private and public forums in recent weeks, administration officials have tried to discourage new or complementary sanctions, arguing that existing sanctions need to be given a chance to work. Underpinning this wait-and-see approach is a sense that Stuxnet has bought Washington enough time to play out its current hand.
Thus, for all of its tangible benefits, Stuxnet may also turn out to have played a distinctly unhelpful role: feeding the hopes of policymakers desperately seeking to avoid a confrontation with Tehran over its nuclear ambitions that such a conflict has, in fact, been deferred. The stubborn reality, however, is that Iran's nuclear program is moving ahead anew - and that Stuxnet's impact, while significant, was just temporary.
Finding a lasting solution to the menace posed by the Islamic Republic's nuclear ambitions will require more than a bit of software, however ingenious it might be. For that, the United States and its allies will need to marshal far greater resolve, creativity and urgency than are on display currently.