The Obama Administration has concluded that Irans nuclear programme has been slowed by a combination of sanctions, sabotage and Irans own technical troubles. Because of the delay, US officials see what one describes as a little bit of space before any military showdown with Iran. Israeli officials, too, see more time on the clock. Moshe Yaalon, Israels Deputy Prime Minister, noted the Iranian slowdown in a Dec 29 interview with Israel Radio and said the West has up to three years to stop Tehran from making a bomb. These [Iranian] difficulties slow the timeline, of course, said Yaalon, a former Israeli defence chief. And recently, outgoing Mossad chief Meir Dagan told Israeli reporters that Iran couldnt build a bomb before 2015 at the earliest, in part because of unspecified measures that have been deployed against them. A senior Obama Administration official gave me a similar account of Irans troubles. Theyre not moving as fast as we had feared a year ago, he said. This new assessment of Irans nuclear setbacks has lowered the temperature on what had been 2010s hottest strategic issue. Last summer, Jerusalem and Washington were talking themselves into a war fever, prompted in part by a powerful article in the Atlantic by Jeffrey Goldberg that starkly described the likelihood of military action. This fever seems to have broken. Whats increasingly clear is that low-key weapons - covert sabotage and economic sanctions - are accomplishing many of the benefits of military action, without the costs. Its a devious approach - all the more so because its accompanied by near-constant US proposals of diplomatic dialogue - but in that sense, it matches Irans own operating style of pursuing multiple options at once. Officials wont discuss the clandestine programme of cyberattack and other sabotage being waged against the Iranian nuclear programme. Yet we see the effects - in crashing centrifuges and reduced operations of the Iranian enrichment facility at Natanz - but dont understand the causes. Thats the way covert action is supposed to work. The most direct confirmation that sabotage has paid off came from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who said in November that the Stuxnet computer virus had damaged the Natanz operation. A fascinating account of the Stuxnet attack was published Dec 22 by the Institute for Science and International Security. The study described how the virus was targeted to attack a key electronic control in the centrifuges, known as a frequency converter, so that the spin of the rotors was increased and slowed in a way that would cause a malfunction. According to the ISIS report, the virus may have been introduced in early or mid-2009. By late 2009 or early 2010, the study said, Iran decommissioned and replaced about 1,000 centrifuges - far more than normal breakage. The virus hid its electronic tracks, but an analysis by the security firm Symantec showed that the code included the term DEADFOO7, which could refer to the aviation term for a dead engine and also be a play on James Bonds fictional code name. The delays in the Iranian programme are important because they add strategic warning time for the West to respond to any Iranian push for a bomb. US officials estimate that if Iran were to try a break out by enriching uranium at Natanz to the 90 per cent level needed for a bomb, that move (requiring reconfiguration of the centrifuges) would be detectable - and it would take Iran one to two more years to make a bomb. The Iranians could try what US officials call a sneak out at a secret enrichment facility like the one they constructed near Qom. They would have to use their poorly performing (and perhaps still Stuxnet-infected) old centrifuges or an unproven new model. Alternative enrichment technologies, such as lasers or a heavy-water reactor, dont appear feasible for Iran now, officials say. Foreign technology from Russia and other suppliers has been halted, and the Iranians cant build the complex hardware (such as a pressure vessel needed for the heavy-water reactor) on their own. The Obama Administration keeps holding the door open for negotiations, and another round is scheduled this month in Istanbul. But the real news is that Tehran has technical problems - bringing sighs of relief (and a few mischievous smiles) in the West. The Washington Post