The White House declined to comment but officials did not seem unduly alarmed, suggesting that the drone's capture would not provide Iran with significant information about U.S. surveillance technology and techniques.
Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council in Washington, said the tit-for-tat incidents “add up to a very worrisome picture,” in part because “the Iranians are absorbing all of these assassinations without seeing the pace of their nuclear program slow down to the extent it would be acceptable to the West.” But if Iranian retaliations grow serious enough, he said, they could provide “the pretext for a much larger war” in which the Israelis, and possibly the Americans, launch a full attack on Iran.
Mark Hibbs, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment in Germany, says the intensity of the covert war indicates that this is where the U.S. and Israel are putting their energy for now. “If the U.S. or Israel were determined to take Iran’s nuclear installations out they wouldn’t be wasting time pinpointing individual scientists like this,” he says. Still, he points out, that Israel’s 1981 attack on Iraq’s Osirak reactor was also preceded by assassination attempts on Iraqi scientists.
By accident or not, it’s entirely possible the covert war could escalate into a real one, experts say. “I am less enthusiastic about how effective all this going to be than some people in the administration,” says Matthew Bunn, a nuclear investigator at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Bunn says he has occasionally discussed the program with the Obama administration officials, and “some have broadly suggested they think this is major element of slowing down Iranian progress.”
He’s not so sure. “Take Stuxnet. It’s possible that a thousand centrifuges went down” because of sabotage by the mystery computer virus _ a super sophisticated program said to have caused substantial parts of Iran's uranium enrichment program to self-destruct several years ago. “But Iran has a thousand more than they would require to enrich to highly enriched uranium” needed for a bomb. Bunn also notes that Iran is increasingly keeping its key scientists such as Mohsen Fakrizadeh, said to be the “Oppenheimer” of the Iranian program, hidden away from sight and burying its facilities deeper underground.
Beyond that, says Hibbs, “Some of the concern in the expert community is that in going this route we’re unleashing forces we cannot control.”