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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