Before the Talks with Iran: U.S. and Israel Were Close on Sanctions and Sabotage, but Not on Assassinations (FLASHBACK)
Israeli and American intelligence agencies evaluated the sanctions and determined that they were too soft. The assessment was that only stronger, crippling sanctions might have some effect on Iran’s leadership.
It seemed that the kind of steps required would include a ban on buying Iranian crude oil and its byproducts. China and Russia refused to lend a hand to that effort. Sanctions thus were not hobbling the determination of Iran’s leaders to keep up their nuclear work.
The Mossad concluded that more drastic measures were needed. Mossad director Meir Dagan’s battle plan called next for sabotage. That took various shapes. He encouraged joint planning and, eventually, joint operations on the Middle East’s clandestine fields of battle.
A CIA suggestion was to send a physicist, a Russian who had moved to the United States, to Iran to offer his knowledge to the Iranian nuclear program. The caper was ridiculously mishandled when the CIA altered a set of nuclear warhead plans that the physicist was carrying, but neglected to tell him. The Iranians would have received damaging disinformation. Unfortunately for this scheme, the ex-Russian noticed errors and told the Iranians that something was flawed. He simply did not know that the CIA wanted him to keep his mouth shut and pass along the materials.
Despite imperfect penetrations at first, the entire concept of “poisoning” both information and equipment was attractive; and the Mossad, the CIA, and the British kept doing it. These agencies set up front companies that established contact with Iranian purchasing networks. In order to build up trust, they sold Iran some genuine components. But at a later stage, they planted – among the good parts, such as metal tubes and high-speed switches – many bad parts that damaged Iran’s program.
The results of this international sabotage began to show. Iran found itself having trouble keeping control of the equipment that it had bought from overseas.
The peak of these damage operations was a brilliantly innovative computer worm that would become known as Stuxnet. Though its origin was never officially announced, Stuxnet was a joint project by the CIA, the Mossad, and Aman’s technological unit. The malicious software was specifically designed to disrupt a German-made computerized control system that ran the centrifuges in Natanz.
The project required studying, by reverse engineering, precisely how the control panel and computers worked and what effect they had on the centrifuges. For that purpose, Germany’sBND– very friendly to Israel, in part based on a long habit of trying to erase Holocaust memories – arranged the cooperation of Siemens, the German corporation that had sold the system to Iran. The directors of Siemens may have felt pangs of conscience, or were simply reacting to public pressure, as newspapers pointed out that the company was Iran’s largest trading partner in Germany.
For a better understanding of Iran’s enrichment process, old centrifuges – which Israel had obtained many years before – were set up in one of the buildings at Dimona, Israel’s not-so-secret nuclear facility in the southern Negev desert. They were nearly identical to the centrifuges that were enriching uranium in Natanz.
The Israelis closely watched what the computer worm could do to an industrial process. The tests, reportedly conducted also at a U.S. government lab in Idaho, took two years.
Virtual weapons of destruction such as Stuxnet can conceivably be e-mailed to the target computer network, or they can be installed in person by plugging in a flash drive. Whether hidden in an electronic message or plugged in by an agent for the Mossad, the virus did get into the Natanz facility’s control system sometime in 2009. Stuxnet was in the system for more than a year before it was detected by Iranian cyber-warfare experts. By then, it was giving the centrifuges confusing instructions, which disrupted their precise synchronization. They were no longer spinning in concert, and as the equipment sped up and slowed repeatedly, the rotors that did the spinning were severely damaged.
The true beauty of this computer worm was that the operators of the system had no idea that anything was going wrong. Everything at first seemed normal, and when they noticed the problem it was too late. Nearly 1,000 centrifuges – about one-fifth of those operating at Natanz – were knocked out of commission.
Iranian intelligence and computer experts were shocked. The nuclear program was slowing down, barely advancing, and falling way behind schedule. Stuxnet, more than anything else, made the Iranians realize they were under attack in a shadow war, with hardly any capability to respond.
In late 2011, they announced two more cyber-attacks. One virus, which computer analysts called Duqu, showed signs of being created by the same high-level, sophisticated hackers who authored Stuxnet: U.S.and Israeli intelligence.
If that were not enough, like the Ten Plagues that befell ancient Egypt, the Iranians were hit by yet another blow – this time, a lethal one. Between 2007 and 2011, five Iranian scientists were assassinated by a variety of methods. One supposedly was felled by carbon monoxide from a heater in his home. Three others were killed by bombs, and one by gunfire: four attacks by men on motorcycles. That was a method perfected by the Mossad’s Kidon unit.
It was noteworthy that the United States flatly denied any involvement. American officials even went so far as to publicly criticize the unknown killers for spoiling diplomatic hopes, because the chances of negotiations with Iran became slimmer after every attack. The Americans, in private, said that they were chiding Israel.