Infecting Iran’s Nuke Program

Ryan Mauro is a fellow with the Clarionproject.org, the founder of WorldThreats.com and a frequent national security analyst for Fox News Channel. He can be contacted at ryanmauro1986@gmail.com.


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Shortly before Russia inserted the fuel rods into Iran’s Bushehr nuclear reactor on August 21, some experts warned it would be the last opportunity for Israel to destroy the facility and prevent Iran from going nuclear. Israel did not, and now we may know why: A “cyber superweapon” had infiltrated the site’s computer networks and it is likely the reason why the reactor’s operation has been delayed. This is just the latest attack in a covert war that has thus far prevented Iran from possessing nuclear weapons.

Iran has admitted that 30,000 of its industrial computers, including those at its Bushehr reactor, have been infected by Stuxnet, a virus described as “a precision, military-grade cyber missile” unrivaled in its sophistication. Top cyber security experts have marveled at Stuxnet, studying it for months because it is “too large, too encrypted, too complex to be immediately understood, it employed amazing new tricks…” It is estimated that it took at least ten experts over six months and $3 million to develop it.

“This is not about espionage, as some have said. This is a 100 percent sabotage attack,” said one expert. And the target of that sabotage is undoubtedly Iran’s nuclear program. Nearly 60 percent of the Stuxnet infections have occurred in Iran. It is specifically designed to infiltrate systems run by Siemens technology, which is what Iran uses for its nuclear reactor and to shut down the Internet communications of the regime’s opposition.

Stuxnet is spread initially by inserting a memory stick into the USB port of one of the sensitive computers, and then it moves through the various systems until it finds its predetermined target. At that point, it is activated as a weapon, silently taking control of the targeted system, disabling it and sending its information abroad.

A news website’s photo from inside the Bushehr reactor in February 2009 is probably what tipped the attackers’ off about the opportunity at hand. The photo showed that one of the reactor’s computer systems was running on Siemens software and the screen had an alert cautioning that a vulnerability existed. This oversight by the Iranians may have been the reactors’ undoing. The reactor is still not operating, despite its much anticipating beginning of operations in September. An Iranian official offered a dubious explanation that hot weather had caused the delay.

It is unclear which government is behind the attack, but Israeli officials have talked of their ability to use cyber warfare against Iran’s nuclear program before and Israel and her allies have a long history of successful covert operations meant to stall the regime’s drive to acquire nuclear weapons capacity. One former cabinet member flatly stated in July 2009 that “We came to the conclusion that, for our purposes, a key Iranian vulnerability is in its on-line information. We have acted accordingly.”

Iran’s Natanz centrifuge plant was originally speculated by some experts to be the target of Stuxnet. This appears false, as Iran has confirmed the presence of Stuxnet at Bushehr and it is believed to be wired to damage one specific target. However, Natanz appears to have suffered severe problems from other acts of sabotage. Last year, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization was fired after a major accident at Natanz. In another “accident” in April 2006, equipment imported from Europe caused an explosion that destroyed 50 centrifuges at the site. Iran’s nuclear chief admitted that it was caused by “manipulated” technology.

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  • posse101

    that's what happens when you teach your kid physics and he grows up to be a Nobel Prize Winner. congrats to the Israelis.

    • Chezwick_Mac

      As opposed to strapping on a bomb in search of mythical virgins!

    • Rifleman

      Sh*t, I was going for up too fast and accidently hit down. Good one.

  • http://therese-zrihen-dvir.over-blog.com/ La libellule

    There is a source that actually denies the cyber attack and points at a premeditated Iranian strategy, to mislead the west and making it believe that they are not able to progress in their nuclear projects. Somehow this source seems to be reliable it's Turkish information – the source also stipulates that Iran seems to be too much eager and willing to dispatch the news of its cyber infection. "If these cyber attacks were real, Iran would never reveal its inability to deal with the problem and disclose its weakness and vulnerability. I tend to believe that it's a lie." Said the source.
    La libellule (The dragonfly)

    • Chezwick_Mac

      I think you're giving the Iranians far too much credit. But I also think they'll eventually find their way out of this problem…and we'll be back to square one.

    • jbtrevor

      That thought crossed my mind (that Iran may have created the virus themselves, infecting other computers leaving their own to continue the work) as I was reading the article. After all even low-paid prison guards know more about security leaks than to let photos of 'sensitive' areas get out of the prison.

  • Grantmann

    Nice way to wake up this morning. I had inklings of some of the items reported above but it's nice to have it all in one post.

    I've also read that it could be the Russians behind this. Who knows? I certainly don't care. As long as the Iranians are delayed and/or put out of business, I'll keep this smile on my face.

  • EdwinS

    Obama removes missile defenses from eastern Europe in exchange for Russians supplying Iran with sabotaged nuclear equipment…
    …Possible…?

  • 911Infidel

    Rumor is that variants of Stuxnet have also been detected on Mahdi-ist computers. Looks like the damage is extensive to the point that only a computer rebuild will fix the problem. That begs the question that since this has been going on for months, just how much of their backups are also infected. Nice job, whoever did this sabotage. There are dissidents in every sector of the Iranian government. Their possible participation in sabotage is not surprising. Remember Neda? I bet they do.

  • Nick Shaw

    It really makes you wonder why all sorts of cyber attacks are not going on today by, for lack of a better word, anti-Islamists. This stuxnet thing could have been anybody's creation, though I love Posse101's response referring to the number of Nobel prizes given to Jews versus those awarded to Arabs. Delightful, posse! Or it could have been nobody as per the dragonfly. My point is, why aren't "radical" Islamist websites under constant attack such that their message is stopped and their computers junked every time they try to post? Personally, I think the Iranians will have a hard time keeping a nuclear facility running properly anyway, without constant supervision by outsiders. How do I know this? I saw a video of the area supposedly being used to enrich uranium a long time ago and they had a supermarket plastic bag (Super Achmed) tied over a valve to catch the leak. Just sayin'.

  • SHmuelHaLevi

    Here is my take on this.
    It was the one-armed man working for the Ugandan Secret Service that did it.
    LOL
    Items added to that.
    Nuclear weapons were made many years before newfangled computerized process control systems were in place. In fact I visited the Trinity Site at White Sands in July 1990 and saw no evidence of advanced computers being used to detonate the two initial nuclear bombs or to assemble them there.
    Iran will certainly get over the problem in due time.
    That is if there is a real problem at all…

    We will have to eventually go deep for the pass.

    • Nick Shaw

      Amen to that! The fact that the Iranians have used plastic models of fighter jets and missles firing, Photoshoped into their propaganda leaves me with hope that "eventually" will be far in the future. After we have time to take them out without destroying the world. Of course, if they spend their time making ridiculous flying boats, as announced lately (that's a step backwards in my estimation) it widens the time frame.

  • crypticguise

    i hope this StuxNet virus stalls the Iranian Nuclear Program long enough so that the Israelis can ATTACK and PHYSICALLY DESTROY as much of the program as possible.

    When we get Obama out of the White House in January 2013, I hope the United States finishes the job and destroys the entire Military Industrial Complex of Iran.

  • BoogiesDaddy

    "At that point, it is activated as a weapon, silently taking control of the targeted system, disabling it and sending its information abroad."

    If this is indeed the capability someone knows if it is real or not. Unfortunately for me I am not in the loop.

  • colter

    A question about this cyber attack: does it also include command and control, missle targeting and aircraft defense sites tied to computres. If so the place is naked right now and heading into further exposure to a real attack. Could it be a set up for the destruction of the Iranian war machine, sending them back into the dark ages as far as military powess is concerned. Something like this occured to the "super" anti-aircraft missle system the Syrians had in place before the Isralei attack on their nuke plant.

  • badaboo

    Super cyber worms aside , eventually Iran will get it right , and when it does , the region will have to deal with it …one way or another . The technology is virtually in the public domain . All that is required is the "means ", which for the right price is attainable .

  • Downsizegov

    Just wondering:
    Is Siemens helping Iran with this?
    How effective are export controls on anti-cyber warfare technology?
    Are western security services proactive in discouraging assistance to Iran?
    It is kind of funny how some of the fallout is effecting Iran enablers like China and Russia.

  • Nick Shaw

    Those interested have probably caught this story today 2/10 at Drudge that the Iranians have nipped their problem in the bud. This quote is hilarious, "We are always facing destructive activities by these [espionage] services, and, of course, we have arrested a number of nuclear spies to block the enemy's destructive moves," OF COURSE, we have arrested them dastardly spies! Sure they have. I feel sorry for the sacrificial lambs arrested though. The chance of anyone still being in Iran, if they were there in the first place, with any connection to this thing are exceedingly remote don't you think?

  • badaboo

    LOL….how do you know when Iranians are lieing ? Are their lips moving ?
    The irony here of course , is that in Iran's quest for nukes , it must employ western technology , and in that technology are built in Trojan Horses .And those are unintentional weaknesses or intentional back doors. If the Pentagon can be hacked and it has , then Iran is small fish .

  • Mahdi Al-Dajjal

    Recall that the very night the Americans launched their air offensive against Iraq, a computer virus brought down all the computer systems in Iraq's Air Defense Headquarters thus rendering their entire command structure blind to what was going on in their airspace around them. As a result, their gunners were left firing blindly into the night sky hoping to hit something.. Look it up.