It is beginning to be more and more apparent that the Stuxnet computer worm, which has caused all sorts of trouble for Iran’s quest for the nuclear bomb, was designed specifically to sabotage nuclear centrifuges.
That would suggest to many national security analysts that the worm originated in Israel, a country very keen to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
It used to be when a secret agent wanted to sabotage a facility of an enemy country, such as a nuclear weapons lab, he or she would have to sneak onto the premises, plant a brick of C4, and hope to get away before anyone was the wiser.
But latter day Michael Weston is more likely to have a computer virus created by an expert and then, in some way, introduce it to the control systems of that same said nuclear weapons lab. It is not as spectacular as something that creates an explosion, with the attended alarms, guards scrambling with tracker dogs, and the spy making a clean getaway in his Aston Martin. But it seems to get the job done.
The New York Times describes what likely happened.
“Computer analysts say Stuxnet does its damage by making quick changes in the rotational speed of motors, shifting them rapidly up and down.
“Changing the speed ‘sabotages the normal operation of the industrial control process,’ Eric Chien, a researcher at the computer security company Symantec, wrote in a blog post.
“Those fluctuations, nuclear analysts said in response to the report, are a recipe for disaster among the thousands of centrifuges spinning in Iran to enrich uranium, which can fuel reactors or bombs. Rapid changes can cause them to blow apart. Reports issued by international inspectors reveal that Iran has experienced many problems keeping its centrifuges running, with hundreds removed from active service since summer 2009.
“‘We don’t see direct confirmation’ that the attack was meant to slow Iran’s nuclear work, David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a private group in Washington that tracks nuclear proliferation, said in an interview Thursday. ‘But it sure is a plausible interpretation of the available facts.'”
“Intelligence officials have said they believe that a series of covert programs are responsible for at least some of that decline. So when Iran reported earlier this year that it was battling the Stuxnet worm, many experts immediately suspected that it was a state-sponsored cyberattack.”
Using a computer virus is likely not the only method Israel is employing to slow down Iran’s nuclear weapon program. Back in the 1960s, when Egypt, then an antagonist of Israel, was employing German rocket scientists to build missiles with the idea of bombarding Israel, possibly with biological agents, the Israeli Mossad would offer the scientists a single warning to stop helping the Egyptians. If the warning went unheeded, it would be followed by a bullet.
Nationals from Muslim countries would not get the warning.
If it is reported that foreign experts helping Iran’s nuclear bomb and rocket programs suddenly quiet, disappear, or die, then it is likely that the Mossad will be dusting off its old playbook.
Naturally, Israel is also developing, likely as a last-ditch option, military strategies to stop Iran’s nuclear bomb program ranging from long-range bombers to cruise missiles launched from submarines in the Persian Gulf. This option is being sternly discouraged by the Obama administration, with a view that diplomacy and economic sanctions are still viable options to derail Iran’s quest for the Bomb. In the meantime, Israel will continue delaying tactics, hoping for developments, such as possible regime change or the election of a new US president, to solve the problem without recourse to a military strike.
Source: Worm Was Perfect for Sabotaging Centrifuges, William J. Broad and David E. Sanger, New York Times, November 18th, 2010