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Did Stuxnet Set Back Iran’s Nuclear Weapons Program?
The Washington, DC-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) headed by David Albright released an assessment Tuesday that Stuxnet may not have delivered a crippling blow to the cascade hall at Natanz with upwards of 9,000 whirling centrifuges generating lower enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. The ISIS report, “Stuxnet Malware and Natanz: Update of ISIS December 22, 2010 Report” indicated that perhaps 1,000 centrifuges at Natanz were disabled in 2010, but that Iran quickly recovered on its inexorable path towards a nuclear weapon. The ISIS report notes:
Additional analysis also lends more support to the conclusion that the Stuxnet malware is aimed principally at destroying centrifuges, not manipulating parameters of the centrifuge cascades so as to lower the production of low enriched uranium (LEU) on a sustained basis. To date, Stuxnet is known to have had at least one successful attack. It is increasingly accepted that, in late 2009 or early 2010, Stuxnet destroyed about 1,000 IR-1 centrifuges out of about 9,000 deployed at the site. The effect of this attack was significant. It rattled the Iranians, who were unlikely to know what caused the breakage, delayed the expected expansion of the plant, and further consumed a limited supply of centrifuges to replace those destroyed. Nonetheless, Iran took steps in the aftermath of the attack that likely reduced further damage by Stuxnet, principally shutting down many centrifuge cascades for months. The shutdown lasted long enough for the malware to be discovered publicly, by which time Iran could have found Stuxnet on the Natanz control systems.
The ISIS report went on to discuss the scope and consequences of the Stuxnet malworm attack on Iran’s nuclear program:
Contrary to several recent media reports, Stuxnet does not appear to be designed to attack the Bushehr nuclear power reactor. Stuxnet has spread easily on Windows-based computers, so it is not surprising that computers at other Iranian facilities, namely the Bushehr nuclear power reactor, would contain this malware. But the code’s attack sequences do not appear targeted at a nuclear power reactor or its associated systems.
A cyberattack like Stuxnet is an uncharted method to damage and delay Iran’s nuclear efforts. Without a diplomatic settlement with Iran, such attacks are likely to continue against Iran’s centrifuge program. They provide an alternative to military strikes against Iran’s known nuclear sites, a tactic that most see as likely to be ineffectual or counterproductive.
“War is ugly, awfully ugly,” Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor recently told diplomats and journalists at the think tank Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. 6 He added that “the cyberworld…becomes more important in the conflict between nations. It is a new battleground, if you like, not with guns but with something else,” he said. It is strategy, he implied, that would be waged in secret by intelligence agencies. Thus, more attacks can be expected in the future. Governments are likely to increase their offensive and defensive cyberwar capabilities.
But nations need to pause before diving into cyberwar against nuclear facilities. Stuxnet is now a model code for all to copy and modify to attack other industrial targets. Its discovery likely increased the risk of similar cyber attacks against the United States and its allies. While it has delayed the Iranian centrifuge program at the Natanz plant in 2010 and contributed to slowing its expansion, it did not stop it or even delay the continued buildup of LEU. A much broader debate, involving the public, needs to weigh the pros and cons of developing this new type of warfare.
With the release of this report, Albright went onto the Comedy Channel’s Colbert Report with a cameo appearance by ABC’s Christiane Amanpour to discuss whether the Stuxnet attack constituted an act of war and whether Iran might retaliate by disrupting industrial infrastructure here in the West. Iran does have talented computer specialists, as evidenced by the refugees who have fled to the US and flourished in the incubators of Silicon Valley. Notwithstanding, the Comedy Channel venue, Albright’s opinion during this interview was that an act of war would have entailed destruction of upwards of 8,000 plus of the estimated 9,000 centrifuges in the Natanz cascade hall. But then he notes that there could be Stuxnet 2.0 versions on steroids, yet to come from alleged Israeli and American sources, with some help from Germans, the latter concerned about denying Iran’s development of nuclear weapons.
Watch the Albright presentation on the Comedy Channel video here.