Iran stole the headlines in 2009 and early 2010 with its campaign to pursue a nuclear weapon, a campaign that projected the regime as a powerful new threat to global peace.  But the amazing display of widespread protests and rioting in the wake of the fraudulent 2009 presidential election showcased the fragility and tenuous hold the regime maintains.  While Iran’s nuclear ambitions dominated foreign policy discussions and America publically stated that the regime was probably a year away from developing a nuclear weapon, by the end of 2010 the talk had stopped.  Was Iran quietly pursuing their nuclear dream or had someone dealt a fatal blow to their nightmarish fantasy?

Iranian Nuclear Sites

Starting in the 1960s, under the Shah, Iran’s first nuclear program made little progress and was abandoned by the ’79 revolution.  With the takeover of its present hardline Islamic regime, Iran began to pursue a nuclear program in the mid-1990s.  Though Iran insisted it was maintaining the conventions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, in 2002 documents revealed the existence of a clandestine weapons program.  Facing international sanctions, the relatively moderate Khatami regime agreed to suspend the program and accept higher level inspections.  With the rise of Ahmadinejad in 2005, Iran began to once again pursue a nuclear program despite the penalty of sanctions.

The Bush administration’s response was to obtain sanctions against Iran and while Vice-President Cheney pushed for possible air strikes, Bush was persuaded into diplomacy by Condoleeza Rice.  Furthermore, it was increasingly apparent that America simply did not have the resources or will to enter a third war against a Muslim state.  Israel was pushing to attack the Iranian uranium enrichment facility at Natanz with bunker busting bombs in an attempt to strike at the heart of the underground mountain complex.  However, Bush denied their requests and hinted in January 2009, that he had authorized a program to sabotage Iranian nuclear efforts.  Upon becoming President, Obama would accelerate the program that would lead to the creation of Stuxnet, perhaps the most successful computer worm ever used in a covert international action and resulting in the destruction of roughly one-fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges.

American Uranium Centrifuges

At the heart of any attempt to pursue nuclear weapons is the creation of highly enriched uranium, a process that requires thousands of centrifuges to produce enough of the prized material.  Iranian centrifuge technology was based entirely on the Pakistani developed first generation centrifuge P-1.  Pakistan’s corrupt chief nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan had sold the P-1 to Iran, Libya, and North Korea.  However, the Israeli’s had managed to get their hands on a large number of P-1s and set them up at their famous Dimona complex in the Negev desert.  With a test bed of P-1s, Israel and by extension the United States could probe Iran’s nuclear technology for weaknesses.

By early 2008, the German company Siemens was cooperating with the Idaho National Laboratory, the United States’ premier nuclear technology R&D facility.  The CIA had identified Siemens controllers as a key piece of equipment at the Iranian enrichment facility at Natanz.  In April 2009, the U.S State Department even blocked a shipment of Siemens controllers headed to Iran.  The work done at Idaho National Laboratory identified vulnerabilities that would later be exploited by the Stuxnet worm.

The Infamous Natanz Nuclear Facility

Appearing in mid-2009, the Stuxnet worm was identified by the Symantec Corporation as part of a global malware search.  Symantec reported that the worm appeared primarily inside Iran, but also appeared in India, Indonesia, and other countries.  The worm was ingeniously designed and had two main objectives.  The worm would infect a system and then lie dormant checking for specific controllers running a set of processes that typically only exist in a centrifuge plant.  If the conditions were met, the rotors of the centrifuges would be sped up to unstable levels causing them to wobble and destroy themselves.  Another part of the program, the “man in the middle” would report back false normal readings from the sensors to give the illusion that the system was running properly.  One section of code identified in the worm is designed to send a signal to 984 linked machines, the exact number of machines the Iranian’s took out of service from Natanz in late 2009.

Though the worm was not a complete success and did not manage to completely destroy all the centrifuges at the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, the nature of war is perhaps forever changed by its achievements.  As early as the beginning of 2009, the Israelis felt their only option was an air strike on the underground facility, an action that would no doubt have resulted in a huge escalation of Middle East tensions.  The ability to covertly strike at the heart of your enemy and then have the benefit of plausible deniability is a momentous change in the way war is waged.  The retiring chief of the Israeli spy agency Mossad has stated Iran’s pursuit of a bomb may now be delayed until 2015 and the Israeli minister for strategic affairs acknowledged the timetable had been postponed by the ‘recent troubles’.  Never in history has a worm done so much for world peace, but the dark side of this new battlefield is all too apparent and the threats we face are increasingly clearer.