The Washington Post reports:
Iran's nuclear program has experienced serious problems, including unexplained fluctuations in the performance of the thousands of centrifuges enriching uranium, leading to a rare but temporary shutdown, international inspectors are expected to reveal Tuesday.
How this potentially significant development plays out should be followed closely, not only for how it counters the main thrust of neoconservative's push for a military strike on Iran, but also for how the Obama administration handles what has become the top priority at the State Department. This holds especially true after the Democrat's considerable losses in the midterm elections; while much of the President's agenda is now on hold, foreign policy remains under the exclusive purview of the executive branch.
The reported malfunctions occurring inside Iranian nuclear facilities naturally leads to speculation about what role the Stuxnet virus may have played. If the computer worm is indeed to blame, this would represent a major coup for Israeli and American intelligence agencies. Without the use of force or the risking of special forces on the ground, the cyber-attack would have achieved at least a temporary setback in Iran's nuclear program. Olli Heinonen, a former top IAEA official, also speculates, noting:
Iran's centrifuges are based on a Pakistani copy of a decades-old Dutch design, and...Iran may have trouble obtaining the raw materials - such as high-strength carbon - for an upgrade because of international sanctions.
If so, then the screws may be tightening on the Islamic Republic. After four rounds of Security Council sanctions and many of the loopholes originally found in the Iran (and earlier Libya) Sanctions Act now closed, the regime is undoubtedly feeling rising economic pressure and finding itself increasingly isolated. Even the United Arab Emirates, one of Iran's main economic partners and the primary hub from which goods are smuggled into the country, has begun to strictly enforce the UNSC sanctions. This is likely to hit members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (who essentially run the Iranian black market) particularly hard.
Of course, the impact that sanctions have had on the Iranian population is well documented and should not be underscored. Already facing a bleak economic outlook -- with unemployment and inflation both continuing to hover around 10% -- prices of many basic goods have gone up dramatically during recent years. While corruption has allowed many in government and the paramilitary to escape the brunt of the sanctions' force, their toll on the Iranian people has been especially heavy. Increasing public dread over the direction of the economy should therefore be of grave concern to Ahmadinejad, particularly in the wake of the massive protests that rocked Iran following the 2009 presidential election and which still have the regime on edge.
It is not surprising, then, that even in Iran's current fractured political landscape, opposition to the sanctions has been a rare point of consensus. Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi have both repeatedly come out against sanctions as a means of pressuring hardliners and supporting the reform movement. Those on the right tied to the regime, meanwhile, have also condemned the measures for obvious reasons.
Ahmadinejad, however, continues to publicly dismiss the notion that the sanctions are having any impact on the country. That view is at odds with the reality on the ground, and obviously not shared by many. Just last month, influential cleric and consummate regime-insider Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani urged Iranian officials "not to take the sanctions seriously and as a joke" in an apparent jab at Iran's ruling president.
If the IAEA report's findings ultimately hold to be true and the country's economy continues to stagnate, Ahmadinejad (and indeed, the regime) may finally be forced into making meaningful concessions in future negotiations with the West. The economic costs of the sanctions, after all, have always been burdened on the presumption that a fully-functioning nuclear program would result. If that's gone, the Islamic Republic would lose much of the incentive to continue its recalcitrance, which could possibly create an opening for the Obama administration to press forward with its policy of engagement.
The IAEA report, when made public, will be posted here.