Are We Secretly Fighting a Cyberwar Against Iran?
September 27, 2010
For several years now, there have been reports that the United States has been waging what amounts to technological warfare against Iran, using sophisticated industrial sabotage measures to weaken and undermine Iran’s nuclear industry -- and, according to the New York Times, these efforts began during the Bush administration but accelerated under President Obama. And, for the past several years, there have been widespread reports that Iran’s nuclear program has been slowed or crippled by some unexplained malfunctions that have, among other things, caused Iran to spin far fewer centrifuges at Natanz, its enrichment plant, than earlier.
Now, it appears, there is a serious computer worm affecting Iran’s nuclear industry, along with other Iranian industrial facilities. Called Stuxnet, the worm appears to be a case of outright industrial sabotage or cyber warfare, created and unleashed not by rogue hackers but by a state. According to the Seattle Times, the time stamp on the Stuxnet virus reveals that it was created in January, 2010, meaning that if the United States is behind it, it’s Obama’s doing, not Bush’s.
If so, and if the United States is behind it, then Obama is already at war with Iran. Cyber warfare is no less war than bombs and paratroopers. Besides the United States, of course, Israel is high on the list of countries with both motive and capability. Iran’s PressTV, a government-owned news outlet, quotes various Western technology and cybersecurity experts saying that either the United States or Israel is behind Stuxnet.
The Seattle Times reports that Stuxnet is highly specific, aimed “solely at equipment made by Siemens that controls oil pipelines, electric utilities, nuclear facilities, and other large industrial sites.”
The Stuxnet infection was detected by VirusBlokAda, a Belarusian computer security company, in July. Like other forms of warfare, the Stuxnet attack is causing collateral damage, spreading to computer networks outside Iran.
The Seattle Times notes, somewhat obliquely, that while President Obama talks often about spending huge sums to protect the United States from computer warfare, it also spends a lot of money to develop an offensive capability against other countries: “President Obama has talked extensively about developing better cyberdefenses for the United States, to protect banks, power plants, telecommunications systems and other critical infrastructure. He has said almost nothing about the other side of the cybereffort: billions of dollars spent on offensive capability, much of it based inside the National Security Agency.”
The Stuxnet virus has also affected Iran’s nuclear power plant at Bushehr, constructed by the Russians. According to the Tehran Times, Iranian officials have admitted the attack and they’re working to contain it. “Iranian information technology officials have confirmed that some Iranian industrial systems have been targeted by a cyber attack, but added that Iranian engineers are capable of rooting out the problem,” reported the Tehran Times. The paper also quoted a top Iranian official saying: “An electronic war has been launched against Iran.” The same official, Mahmoud Liaii of the Industries and Mines Ministry’s tech office, added that the virus “is designed to transfer data about production lines from our industrial plants to (locations) outside of the country.”
Haaretz, the Israeli daily, quoted the European firm Kaspersky Labs thus: “Stuxnet is a working and fearsome prototype of a cyber-weapon that will lead to the creation of a new arms race in the world.”
Make no mistake: This is serious stuff. I'm not one of those naive, Pollyannish types who believe that Iran is merely interested in peaceful uses of nuclear power. (For one thing, it doesn't have a nuclear power industry that needs fuel, and it won't have one for at least 15 years.)
Iran would never suffer the painful sanctions and international isolation that it faces merely to defend a theoretical right to develop a civilian nuclear industry. Perhaps its leaders see the nuclear program as a giant bargaining chip or as a way to gain attention for itself. No one wants to see Iran get the bomb, including Russia, China -- and, yes, the author of this article. However, Iran is not very close to having that capability: So far it hasn't even tried to enrich uranium to the highly enriched state needed to build a bomb. If and when it does, the world will know. And, if bombing Iran's nuclear facilities is not the answer, neither is launching war by other means.