It is not easy building a nuclear bomb and delivery vehicles (missiles) when everyone keeps bothering and sanctioning you. Iran has wrestled with assassinations of its scientists, a computer virus (Stuxnet), and now a massive explosion on November 12 at a missile facility. The blast killed the chief of Iran’s missile program, General Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam.
While the United States has not taken credit, the explosion and previous examples are entirely consistent with the overall Obama approach. The administration has favored quiet, behind-the-scenes military moves rather than grand conventional invasion a la George W. Bush and Iraq, 2003. President Barack Obama has stepped up the use of drones in AfPak. In Libya, the United States participated in an air war but stayed away from boots on the ground and let NATO lead the air war. To the extent that an external power provided military training to Libyan rebels, it was done by US allies such as Britain and France. The same is now taking place with the Syrian armed opposition, the Free Syrian Army. But in both cases, US allies trained local forces for action. One thinks of special forces and covert action. (As an aside, the President has also refrained from attempting to lead the external response to the Arab uprisings in 2011.)
These US military policies are one manifestation of leading from behind – leading with a lighter footprint. (For the supposed advantages of a lighter footprint in US vs. al-Qaeda, see a recent talk at UConn by Seth Jones of RAND.) With the exception of Afghanistan, Obama has turned to covert operations, training proxies, reliance on technological superiority (e.g. drones), and the like instead of frontal, conventional wars.
I am skeptical such efforts will be perceived by others as “quiet,” but they do look (or get framed as) less belligerent than the conventional invasion of another country. Will it be easier for friendly and neutral governments to overlook such military action? Maybe, but the Government of Pakistan sure is angry at the US government and events like the violation of Pakistani sovereignty to kill Osama Bin Laden or the recent death of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a U.S. strike suggest even lesser actions may inflame the situation and harm US ties with others. What remains unclear is whether these are examples of U.S retrenchment and a growing sense of humility (there is only so much we can do in the world) or simply different tactics meant to accomplish the same global or imperial goals.
Given the huge risks associated with a U.S. air attack on Iranian nuclear facilities and given the Obama track record, the idea that the United States and its allies are behind these coercive moves against Iran is entirely plausible. In the coming months, we should expect more examples of unexplained damage to Iran’s effort. Who knows, maybe the Cold War idea of causing Fidel Castro’s beard to fall out will be turned on Iranian leaders.