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Infecting Iran’s Nuke Program

Posted By Ryan Mauro On September 30, 2010 @ 12:15 am In FrontPage | 20 Comments

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.

One study found that Iran’s centrifuges are only operating at 20 percent efficiency. Only about half of the centrifuges at Natanz are working, and they are breaking faster than they are being replaced. In November 2009, only 3,900 were operating, down about 1,000 from May. The ones that did operate only produced about half of the uranium they should have. Part of the problem the Iranians face is that impurities supposed to be cleansed from the uranium before entering the centrifuges still remained, damaging the devices. This is extremely hurtful to the program, as Iran is running short on uranium and is being forced to find foreign suppliers and is working feverishly to increase production its mine near Bandar Abbas.

Operations to wreck the centrifuges have long been in motion. As far back as 1998, undercover CIA and Mossad operatives worked to sell Iran faulty chemical substances that would later disable them. Top nuclear expert David Albright says that U.S. labs tampered with vacuum pumps needed for the centrifuges that were then sold to Iran. They were rigged “to bug them or to make them break down under operational conditions. If you can break the vacuum in a centrifuge cascade, you can destroy hundreds of centrifuges or thousands if you are really lucky.” In 2006, Iran arrested one of its citizens for allegedly causing “irreversible damage” by providing booby-trapped nuclear equipment on behalf of the Mossad. He was hanged in 2008.

The Israelis are suspected of being involved in the assassination and disappearance of Iranian nuclear scientists as well. In January 2007, Dr. Ardeshir Hassanpour, a key scientist at the Isfahan uranium conversion site, “suffocated by fumes from a faulty gas fire while he slept,” claimed the Iranian regime. Other sources are confident his death was caused by the Israelis. The Mossad is suspected in the deaths of at least two other scientists. The CIA and other intelligence agencies have also been hard at work in getting important officials to defect, and there have been other suspicious accidents damaging nuclear labs and Revolutionary Guards aircraft carrying sensitive materials.

The Stuxnet attack and other covert operations are causing incalculable damage to the Iranians’ nuclear efforts, and the sophisticated nature of the virus means there may still be undetected damage. It is often asked if and when Iran’s nuclear sites will be attacked. Now we know the answer: They already have been.


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