Is U.S. in Iran Cyber War?
Image Credit: U.S. Defense Department

Is U.S. in Iran Cyber War?


On June 21, Iran’s intelligence minister, Heydar Moslehi, announced that Iran had detected what he called a “massive cyber attack” against Iran’s nuclear facilities planned by “America and the Zionist regime (Israel) along with the [British spy agency] MI6.”

Moslehi may or may not have been making this up, but based on recent history and a striking series of revelations from U.S. national security officials in leaks to the New York Times, the Washington Post and in a new book, Confront and Conceal by David E. Sanger, the Iranian official has plausibility on his side.

More importantly, the Iranian charges suggest that a long-running cyberwar campaign against Iran by the United States and Israel has the potential to fatally undermine the already difficult negotiations between Iran and the so-called P5+1 world powers over Iran’s nuclear research and uranium enrichment plans. “Obama [is] prepared to let half-baked schemes undermine any chance he might have had, at least in theory, to pursue serious diplomacy with Iran,” wrote Flynt Leverett and Hilary Mann Leverett, both former officials at the National Security Council under George W. Bush, who’ve criticized Obama’s approach toward Iran.

In the worst case, in fact, the U.S.-led cyberwar effort – which, analysts in Washington say, is a form of offensive, undeclared warfare – could drastically heighten tensions between Iran and the United States even to the point of open conflict.

In Confront and Conceal, Sanger describes in detail the never-before-told story of “Olympic Games,” the code name for a major U.S. covert operation against Iran launched by the Bush administration, with Israel’s cooperation, in 2007-2008 and then vastly expanded by President Barack Obama. “You can’t help but describe it as an attack on critical infrastructure,” Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA, told Sanger. “Somebody has crossed the Rubicon,” he said, likening the cyber sabotage of Iran’s plants in some senses to the August 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Using information gleaned from Israeli on-the-ground spies with access to facilities such as Natanz, where Iran’s centrifuges spin, the U.S. team reportedly implanted a spyware “beacon,” likely by means of a small thumb drive, making use of insider knowledge from the German industrial giant Siemens. Apparently, reports Sanger, Israeli spies recruited or subverted engineers from Siemens to help out in the cause.

Using a model of a P-1 centrifuge obtained from Libya, which appears to have used the same model as Iran, “destructive testing” using a cyber bug took place.

Obama is said to have overseen the entire operation closely, despite his concern that Iran might respond by launching attacks on American troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf, on Israel, and on the vast Saudi oil complex. He is alleged to have continued the program even after the virus, called Stuxnet by those who later analyzed it, escaped the confines of Iran’s nuclear program and spread around the globe, especially in India and Indonesia. According to media reports, discovery led to panic inside the White House. “Inside the Pentagon and the CIA, there were meetings about whether the United States would be accused of being among the first to use a cyberweapon against a sovereign state,” writes Sanger.

October 18, 2012 at 14:20

Allow me to make sure I understand what you are saying. You are suggesting that the United States was the initial aggressor, not Japan, in WW2 because some Americans bombed Japanese soldiers in China? If so, may I ask what the Japanese soldiers were doing in China? I assure you they weren't ther on a peace keeping mission. Or do you have an explanation that somehow blames the US for the Imperial Army's invasion of Japan?

major lowen gil marquez, phil army
July 31, 2012 at 11:27

The cyber war play's a vital role in this modern times, specially in conducting military operation against the dictatorships country that will put the world security into the trouble and stake, Nuclear should not be permitted to Iran because it will create a world chaos on nuclear proliferation to the extremist thoughts on religious fanatics and diabolical perception intended to destroy world peace, we shall move the heaven and earth to stop the inhuman nuclear program to be perpetrated by the dictatorship ideological religious extremist specially Iran and other countries that would follow the religious extremism model… Israel will be in trouble if Iran will have its nuclear warhead capability…. think deeper…

June 27, 2012 at 22:31

Cyberattack is better than starting another war for heaven's sake.  There is a lot at stake here.  Hoping for actual progress with 'talks' between the USA and Iran is a bit naive at best, but I daresay we must be hopeful.  It is surprising how much like North Korea it has really become (diplomatically).  It is about postponing a real crisis and hoping that someone dies or there is a revolt from the inside and that something gets better.  You cannot expect Iran to ever stop hating Israel in much the same way that North Korea will hate the South until one goes away (politically).  It's a very unfortunate reality!

June 27, 2012 at 17:55

Real wars fill trenches with corpses. That's something former Bush officials have been rather anxious to do. Stuxnet saved lives, & has helped prevent war. Espionage yes, it was that, however it has not been, and is not, warfighting. In terms of digital attacks, the authors, and some of those they quoted, need to look FAR harder at how much US national infrastructure, both public & private sector get attacked before they start casting blame at the US as being somehow at fault for origination of so-called cyber warfare. That they omit those facts from their opinions does not speak well of their understanding of the problem, or the breadth of their knowledge.

Ken D'Ambrosio
June 27, 2012 at 11:35

I am, honestly, somewhat surprised at what appears to be the niavate — or perhaps simple ignorance — of the author's view of the world geopolitic.  Is he somehow under the impression that the US and Iran previously had a reasonable relationsihp founded on trust and admiration?  Iran's been after us — and vice-versa — since the revolution.  It's not much of a secret that they are allies with Syria, Hezbollah, and other organizations who would weep no tears were there to be another 9/11 — and, indeed, would be happy to help make that happen.  Iran's president, who by most reports is considered moderate, is an ardent Holocaust denier.  Iran has also spent decades dodging arms inspectors, much akin to the way North Korea operates — with whom they share a fairly warm relationship.  I am not, by any means, saying that the US is blameless in this relationship.  I *am* saying that I think any non-lethal means of delaying their enrichment of nuclear materials is probably a good one.  On the one hand, we can hope for a regime change, or, at least, a gradual lessening of animosity.  On the other hand, the further Iran gets toward enrichment, the more likely a significant Israeli attack becomes — one that will be an actual, for real, very lethal act of war.
To pretend that wrecking some centrifueges is somehow on par with attacking Pearl Harbor is simple foolishness.  To attempt to forestall the very real spectre of an actual groundwar in the Middle East is nothing but common sense.  I could wish it were otherwise, but this is the real world — one where cyberattacks by organized crime, nation states, and anonymous covert organizations are a fact of life.

Eric Johnson
June 27, 2012 at 07:55

I think the assumption here is that diplomacy will work where it has not in the last three decades.  America and Israel are playing for time, hoping that there is some form of regime change that will allow them to negotiate prior to Iran obtaining nukes; once they get them, some type of military action is almost unavoidable.

June 27, 2012 at 07:13

I wish people would learn history, especially reporters who are very influential in shaping readers' views. Quote: "In the case of Iran, it seems, it was the United States playing the role of 1941 Japan [launching an attack]."
The 1941 attack did not happen in a vacuum. The U.S. had already been at war against Japan for several years, bombing & killing their soldiers in China. Just like we're doing with Iran now (except via the internet).  Both cases are similar in that in both WE are the initial aggressor.  Is it any wonder they would retaliate?


Mark Thomason
June 26, 2012 at 13:49

There should be no mystery about their response.  They have complete copies of all of our best work.  It will be coming back at us.  For certain.  Who is kidding who here?  

June 26, 2012 at 10:06

Iran's response? They tout out their Venezuelan F-16.

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