Exposing a dark underbelly of the U.S.’ two-track strategy to contain Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions, a major leak to media outlets here revealed that President Barack Obama had, in parallel, authorised waves of crippling cyber-attacks aimed at destabilising the operation of Iran’s key nuclear centrifuges.
While the Obama administration has repeatedly assured the international community that it would press Iran with only a combination of economic sanctions and an open window for diplomatic negotiations, news that the White House had teamed up with Israeli experts to unleash the so-called “Stuxnet” programme on Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment facility, for example, hinted at a more aggressive U.S. tack.
The leak hinted at the magnitude and impact of the U.S.-driven cyber-attacks suggesting that one specific series of attacks that occurred weeks after Stuxnet was detected around the world “temporarily took out nearly 1,000 of the 5,000 centrifuges Iran had spinning at the time.”
According to officials speaking to The New York Times, The Washington Post and others, the cyber-attacks authorised by Mr. Obama since his early days in office and codenamed “Olympic Games,” suffered their biggest exposure when Stuxnet became public in mid-2010 after a programming error resulted in it escaping Iranian systems and spreading around the world on the Internet.
News of the lethal worm’s escape into cyberspace led to a “tense meeting in the White House Situation Room within days” during which Mr. Obama was said to have asked Vice-President Joseph Biden and erstwhile Central Intelligence Agency Director Leon Panetta, “Should we shut this thing down?”
The risk to the wider Internet posed by Stuxnet may not have led to greater restraint by the White House, however. Only last week it was disclosed that Iranian computer systems had also been felled by a new super-virus named Flame, reportedly 20 to 40 times larger than Stuxnet.
While Stuxnet was designed for outright sabotage, Flame is described as an espionage virus, possibly intended to give its creators a detailed blueprint of Natanz’s industrial computer control designs. Similar to its drone programme, the U.S. has never admitted using cyber weapons against other nations, although it is said to have recently acknowledged developing them.
The alleged use of Stuxnet against Iran may, however, give pause to countries such as India, which have in recent months felt the heat of U.S. and Israeli pressure to cut down on Iranian oil imports and fall in line with bilateral sanctions. This pressure has been predicated on the presumed two-track approach which, in reality, would be a three-pronged approach if the cyber-attacks were confirmed as true.