Who attacked Iran's nuclear program?
For years, the Islamic Republic of Iran has defied pressure from the U.S., the European Community, the Arab world and the U.N. to halt its jihad-driven efforts to build an atom bomb. Why? Because of Iran's admitted support of terrorists worldwide.
If Iran gets the bomb, so does al-Qaida, Venezuela, Hezbollah, Burma, Syria, Libya and any other crazies who will pledge to use it against America or Israel.
As a result, both Israel and the United States have studied the possibility of knocking out Iran's facilities with precision air strikes.
The goal would be to frustrate Iranian ability enrich uranium from which it would build an atom bomb.
Another danger of Iran gaining the bomb is President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's widely proclaimed belief -- the subject of at least two speeches to the United Nations -- that the long-awaited Shi'ite messiah, the "Hidden Imam," cannot return to earth until civilization is devastated by worldwide holocaust. Ahmadinejad is committed to causing such global destruction -- in order to usher in worldwide submission to Iran's brand of Islam.
While no air strikes have occurred, the West has imposed crippling economic sanctions on Iran and has coordinated an intensive campaign to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program from within -- uniting foreign agents and Iranian resistance fighters. They are driven by a growing yearning among Iranians to bring freedom to their nation tyrannized by powerful mullahs -- the equivalent of Muslim bishops -- who grip onto political power through fear and control of the Islamic courts.
Now it appears someone has infected Iran with one of the most sophisticated computer viruses ever seen, called "Stuxnet," which has knocked out more than 45,000 Iranian computers. The suspects? The United States, Israel, Germany and Saudi Arabia. All four have been completely silent.
"Iran admitted on September 27 it was under full-scale cyber terror attack," reported DEBKAfile, an Israeli news service that focuses on terrorist threats.
Iran's official IRNA news agency quoted Hamid Alipour, deputy head of Iran's government Information Technology Company, as saying that the "Stuxnet" computer worm "is mutating and wreaking further havoc on computerized industrial equipment."
Stuxnet was no normal worm, Alipour said: "The attack is still ongoing and new versions of this virus are spreading."
The computer virus, reported John Markoff in the New York Times, "was so skillfully designed that computer security specialists who have examined it were almost certain it had been created by a government and is a prime example of clandestine digital warfare."
The Christian Science Monitor said the Stuxnet worm was programmed to probe computers that it infected for extremely specific settings. Unless it identified industrial software systems made by Siemens, it remained largely dormant.
Siemens AG is a German corporation founded in 1847 that is Europe's largest engineering conglomerate. The international offices for Siemens' three main business sectors, industry, energy and healthcare, are located in Berlin, Munich and Erlangen, Germany. The vast company has a total of 15 divisions and employs 420,800 people in nearly 190 countries. Its annual revenues exceed $100 billion.
Because Siemens is one of the top contractors continuing to work with Iran, Stuxnet was tailored to seek out Siemens programs -- specifically attacking any Siemens software that was designed to assist Iran's nuclear program.
The appearance of Stuxnet created a ripple of amazement among computer security experts worldwide. Too large, too encrypted, too complex to be immediately understood, it employed amazing new tricks, reported the Monitor, such as taking control of a computer system without the user taking any action or clicking any button.
Stuxnet is "a highly sophisticated computer worm built to destroy Iran's Bushehr nuclear reactor," reported Robert McMillan of IDG News. He said security experts who have examined Stuxnet "have broken the cryptographic code behind the software and taken a look at how the worm operates in test environments. Researchers studying the worm all agree that Stuxnet was built by a very sophisticated and capable attacker -- possibly a national government -- and it was designed to destroy something big.
"Experts say it took a massive expenditure of time, money, and software engineering talent to identify and exploit such vulnerabilities in industrial control software systems."
The virus was designed with one purpose in mind
Significantly, Stuxnet apparently was not intended to help anyone make money or steal personal data. Instead, it apparently was designed with one mission in mind: to shut down Iran's nuclear program.
"Shortly before Russia inserted the fuel rods into Iran's Bushehr nuclear reactor on August 21," reports Ryan Mauro for the Internet news magazine FrontPage, "some experts warned it would be the last opportunity to destroy the facility and prevent Iran from going nuclear."
In the past Israel has attacked and disabled nuclear reactors in Iraq and Syria shortly before the nuclear facilities went on line. However, no military strike against Iran has been launched.
"Now we may know why," writes Mauro. "A 'cyber superweapon' had infiltrated the site's computer networks and is likely the reason why the reactor's operation has been delayed."
Apparently this is just the latest attack in a covert war that has delayed Iran from possessing nuclear weapons. As a result of earlier efforts, Iran's uranium centrifuges -- used to refine nuclear fuel to the potency needed for an atom bomb -- are only operating at 20 percent efficiency. Only about half of the centrifuges at Iran's Natanz nuclear facility are working at all.
"And they are breaking faster than they are being replaced," reports Mauro. "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 at 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 to Iran faulty chemical substances that would later disable them. Mossad is Israel's equivalent of the CIA."
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 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.
Mossad, CIA suspected ... Saudis, too!
Foreign agents also 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," writes Mauro. "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."
However, the latest attack -- the Stuxnet computer virus -- has been extremely effective.
"It 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," reports journalist Jay Tower. "It is often asked if and when Iran's nuclear sites will be attacked. Now we know the answer: They already have been."
Stuxnet is described as "a precision, military-grade cyber missile" unrivaled in its sophistication. Top cyber-security experts have marveled, studying it for months because it is "too large, too encrypted, too complex to be immediately understood, it employed amazing new tricks."
"This is not about espionage, as some have said," writes Mauro. "This is a 100 percent sabotage attack," said one expert he interviewed.
However, other reports say the software is so sophisticated that it accomplishes both goals -- and more. Apparently, it also lies dormant in some computers unless efforts are made to remove it. Then, it goes on a rampage, wiping out data and physically damaging the machine itself -- something most viruses cannot do. Most can only damage software, not hardware.
The solution would seem to be to leave Stuxnet alone
However, the virus has an additional capability -- it apparently can lie dormant for long periods, then be activated remotely -- reprogrammed to do new and different damage.
So far, the target of its sabotage "is undoubtedly Iran's nuclear program," says Mauro. "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 reactors, and to shut down the Internet communications of the regime's opposition."
Stuxnet apparently was first spread initially by someone inserting a "memory stick" into the USB port of one of a number of sensitive computers.
"Memory sticks" are also called "flash drives." They are small and convenient -- seldom more than four inches long and a half-inch wide. It is not uncommon for "flash drives" to be worn on U.S. college students' necklaces or keychains -- since homework can be stored there to be completed on any computer at home, at the library or at a school computer lab. Likewise, "flash drives" are popular in such countries as Iran. A consultant or researcher can carry important reference material on a flash drive, eliminating the need to lug around a laptop computer.
Stuxnet spreads quickly whenever an infected flash drive is plugged into a computer. It moves swiftly through computer networks, infecting any computer connected to the infected system and jumping onto any flash drive plugged into an affected machine.
However, so far Stuxnet only attacks certain targets
When it finds Siemens software being used in the Iranian nuclear problem, it silently takes control of the computer, disabling it and transmitting its information over the Internet. But to whom? Researchers don't know.
Thus, it destroys Iran's computers as well as reveals whatever Iranian scientists were working on -- providing valuable intelligence on how far along the Iranians are and what needs to be done next to stop them.
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. Israel has a long history of successful covert operations meant to stall its enemies' efforts 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," according to Nauro.
Worldwide, computer security experts had become worried about Stuxnet as it spread throughout Europe and India. However, they were extremely puzzled that it did not do any damage. Then, they watched how it seeks out Siemens software -- and, again, rarely does any harm unless the Siemens software is involved in the Iranian nuclear program.
Last year, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization was fired after a major accident at Iran's nuclear facility in 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.
Computer warfare is not new
In the early 1980s, the U.S. blocked sales of advanced automated control software to the Soviets, who needed it to operate a pipeline bringing oil from Siberia. The CIA was tipped off to Soviet intentions to steal the software from a firm in Canada. So, CIA director William J. Casey worked with the Canadians to plant deliberately sabotaged software to automate the pipeline.
Once the pipeline was constructed, the software was used to trigger a massive explosion so powerful and devastating that it registered on earthquake-detecting seismographs worldwide.
In September 2007 Israeli planes destroyed a nuclear reactor deep inside Syria, days before weapon-grade uranium from North Korea was to arrive there and be loaded for processing. The planes released deep-burrowing bombs -- and the bombs were guided to their targets by Israeli commandos who beamed the buildings targeted for destruction with infrared pointers.
Sabotaged software running Syria's electrical grid was the reason the Israeli planes, commandos, and several rescue helicopters were able to enter Syria, accomplish their mission, and retreat without being caught. Israel used sophisticated software attacks, made more effective by Israeli-designed microchips planted in Syria's radar and command-and-control computers. The result was to completely blind the Syrian military and government for about an hour and a half.
In the wake of the recent Stuxnet attack on Iran's computers, Iranian Revolutionary Guard deputy commander Hossein Salami has threatened military reprisals against whoever is responsible.
Salami "declared his forces had all the defensive structures for fighting a long-term war against 'the biggest and most powerful enemies,'" reported Israeli journalist Shoaib Yousuf. However, no reprisals were launched since the Iranians could not prove who had planted the virus.
But who did this? The Iranians do not know
The virus was created "in line with the West's electronic warfare against Iran," said Mahmoud Liayi, secretary of the information technology council of Iran's Industries Minister. Furious Iranian officials said that computer hackers -- who enjoy "huge investments" from what he described as "a series of foreign countries or organizations" -- had designed the virus.
That led to speculation that Iran's chief rival in the Middle East -- Saudi Arabia -- might have bankrolled the software's development. The Saudis belong to the Sunni branch of Islam and consider Iranian Shi'ites to be apostates and blasphemers. The Saudis are also very nervous about Iran having any nuclear capability and possibly challenging the Saudi's role as the guardians of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
DEBKAfile reported that Tehran has secretly appealed to a number of computer security experts throughout Europe with offers of handsome fees for finding ways to stop Stuxnet from spreading further havoc. However, no foreign experts are known so far to have agreed to help. Reasons cited by a few of the experts approached included Tehran's refusal to tell them which centers and systems are under attack or disclose the locations where foreign experts would work.
One concern expressed by experts was that Iran could become enraged with any visiting consultants -- particularly if damage escalates once more when they attempt to remove the software.
DEBKAfile said the virus has infected most of Iran's important industrial complexes and military command centers, which Iran officially denies.
Yousuf confirmed that, indeed, a number of European computer experts have been approached for aid, but most have declined to come to Iran to help. Yousuf called the public appeal for help an indication that the Iranians are getting desperate.
One expert said: "The Iranians have been forced to realize that they would be better off not 'irritating' the invader because it hits back with a bigger punch."
Iranian officials who turned outside for help were described by another of the experts they approached as "alarmed and frustrated." It has dawned on them, reported Yousuf, "that the trouble cannot be waved away overnight but is around for the long haul. Finding a credible specialist with the magic code for ridding them of the cyber enemy could take several months.
Sitting back and hoping for the best
"After their own attempts to defeat Stuxnet backfired, all the Iranians can do now is to sit back and hope for the best," wrote Yousuf, "helpless to predict the worm's next target and which other of their strategic industries will go down or be robbed of its secrets next."
While it has been reported that the software has become more aggressive when tampered with, another speculation has been that Iranian engineers just don't know what they are doing -- and have damaged their own computers while trying to fix them. That prompted speculation that Stuxnet gives false signals -- tricking engineers into trying to fix inexistent problems -- making problems worse.
Looking beyond Iran's predicament, the expert wondered just what it is that the people responsible for planting Stuxnet in Iran -- and apparently continuing to offload information from its sensitive systems -- plan to do next.
Stuxnet has been sensed in industrial facilities around the world, but was designed to go after several "high-value targets," said Liam O. Murchu, manager of security response operations at the Symantec Corporation, a U.S. software security firm.
Symantec reportedly is not worried that it will cause trouble in the U.S. In fact, global alarm over the deadly computer worm has toned down.
In mid-July the Wikileaks website reported that it had learned of a serious nuclear accident at the Natanz plant, perhaps attributable to the virus.
Officially, the head of the Bushehr facility announced in a public statement that Stuxnet was a complete failure and had affected only the personal computers of staff members, the British news service Reuters reported. The state-run newspaper, Iran Daily, reported that Iran's telecommunications minister, Reza Taghipour, said the virus had not penetrated or caused "serious damage."
Such claims were seen as Iranian attempts to save face.
Is Iran truly a threat to the rest of the world?
President Ahmadinejad made his annual address to the United Nations General Assembly in late September. Instead of preaching his usual sermon about the pending arrival of the Shi'ite messiah and Iran's divine mission to help him spread Shi'ite Islam worldwide, the Iranian president instead ranted on, accusing the United States of attacking itself on September 11, 2001.
"He reminded America and the free world just what a crazed worldview he holds," reported Mauro, "when he called for an investigation into whether the United States government was behind the attack on the World Trade Centers on 9/11. It was brilliant theater and a classic distraction technique to be sure. What he didn't want you and I to focus on was what his brutal, menacing regime is doing to its own people, to its neighbors, and to the world.
"Firstly," commented Deal Hudson, author of Onward, Christian Soldiers: The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States, "I do not call Ahmadinejad 'president' because that would confer on him an honor he did not earn and does not deserve. He was not elected. He stole his position in what every Iranian knows to be a fraudulent election. He is not the duly elected president, but the puppet of the mullahs who have put him in place.
"Secondly, we must remember what happened after he stole the election and the process was exposed as a massive fraud against the Iranian people. Outraged Iranians took to the streets. These brave protests became known throughout the world as the Green Revolution or the Persian Awakening. The protestors were brave because they knew the nature of the regime they were protesting, and which they had voted to remove. They knew the ruthlessness and brutality of the mullahs and the man they had placed in power."
Iranians have pleaded for America to help them
"On June 24th, CNN recorded a call from a terrified Iranian girl, who told of democracy demonstrators being hacked with axes, shot, or thrown from bridges. She pleaded: 'You should stop this ... you should help the people of Iran who demand freedom ... you should help us ... it's time to act.'
"She was pleading to America," writes Hudson. "She was pleading to us. I remind my fellow Americans of the brutal actions of the Iranian regime because in another instance their actions most definitely affect our vital national interests.
"The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) -- a UN chartered organization not known to exaggerate -- reported that Iran is denying its inspectors access to Iran's nuclear facilities, including one in Qum, discovered last year inside a mountain, deep inside a military base operated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
"Let there be no mistake. This is not a peaceful project. This is a nuclear military facility producing a nuclear weapon for the brutal Iranian regime. According to the IAEA, Iran continues to refuse to report on its advanced technologies aimed at developing advanced missiles with nuclear payloads. Iran is the leading state sponsor of terror. It repeatedly threatens our ally Israel, denies the Holocaust, and openly calls for the destruction of the Jewish state.
"In another time and place," writes Hudson, "but facing the same brutal repression of freedom and human dignity, Soviet dissident and gulag prisoner Natan Sharansky warned: "How a government treats its own people cannot be separated from how that government could be expected to treat other countries."
"This is why I link Iran's human rights abuses to it nuclear weapons program. This is a regime built on terror. And it is very, very close to possessing nuclear weapons.
"We dismiss the actions of the mullahs and Ahmadinejad at our peril," warns Hudson. "Every day we fail to act, every day we are distracted, this brutal regime is one day closer to the most dangerous weapon in the world."