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Middle East nuclear proliferation may be on the way, but the immediate threat is cyberwarfare 

December 11, 2020 at 8:23 pm

Cyber attacks [Flickr]

Nuclear weapons have long been a dream of Middle Eastern states wishing to expand their influence or outdo their rivals, and they have never been closer to that dream than they are now. Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the US from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, although seemingly bad for the sanctioned Islamic Republic, essentially gave it the opportunity to return to its nuclear development programme, only this time with a more self-righteous attitude.

Growing increasingly frustrated, Iran decided last year to increase its enriched uranium and to develop centrifuges in retaliation for the fallout from the deal. It then threatened a further development in its nuclear ambitions last month, when the parliament in Tehran approved a bill to increase uranium enrichment on a monthly basis. The Foreign Ministry even announced that there would be no renegotiation of the terms of the deal under a Biden administration in Washington; it is too late, and the US has already betrayed Iran.

Saudi Arabia has also outlined its own nuclear ambitions over the past year, constructing a uranium ore facility with help from China. Although that programme is reportedly for peaceful purposes only, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman did say two years ago that he would develop nuclear arms if Iran does.

Naturally, Israel and the US have grown ever more concerned over the escalating situation in the region. Iran has long been a concern due to its ambitions and “axis of resistance” to Israel and America, but now even Saudi Arabia worries the Zionist allies with its renewed regional ambitions. Indeed, Israel has expressed its concern over the Kingdom’s nuclear programme. Despite the possibility of Riyadh normalising ties with Tel Aviv in the near future, a nuclear-armed Saudi Arabia is the last thing that Israel would want to see.

However, at the moment it is less of a concern than Iran, which is perceived as the primary threat to the occupation state. Israel and the US remain committed to destroy, or seriously limit, its nuclear ambitions, hence the recent assassination of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on the streets of Tehran last month, for which the fingers of blame are pointing at the Israelis.

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Traditional methods to prevent a rival state’s development, such as espionage and assassination, are the focus of attention at the moment. A more contemporary tool is also being used, though: cyberwarfare.

The most revolutionary development in this field was the invention of the computer virus called Stuxnet a decade ago. It is able to exploit gaps in computer systems known as zero-day vulnerabilities and infect them. Stuxnet is extremely sophisticated and possesses previously unknown cyber hacking capabilities.

The virus was deployed against Iran’s centrifuges which were used for producing the enriched uranium needed for nuclear weapons. It made them operate at a faster speed to ruin the equipment while telling the mainframe computer that everything was fine. This confused Iranian scientists and authorities, resulting in diagnostics being made only when it was too late and the damage had been done. It was then, in 2010, that the intelligence and cyber security community discovered Stuxnet and realised that an entirely different kind of cyber threat had emerged.

Thanks to WikiLeaks, we now know that the virus was created by the US and Israeli intelligence agencies under a classified programme called “Operation Olympic Games”. Launched under President George W Bush’s administration and continued under Obama, the programme aimed to target Iran’s nuclear ambitions and other threats that might present themselves.

Despite neither Washington nor Tel Aviv officially acknowledging their part in Stuxnet’s development, a video commemorating the retirement of the Israeli Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi in 2011 listed the virus as one of his successes.

This computer worm was not simply a threat to Iran’s nuclear programme, but also possessed the potential to hack into and disrupt a nation’s infrastructure on a much larger scale. It mutated into a variety of different forms which emerged in locations such as Ukraine, in which a power grid was successfully taken out through the use of a cyberattack conducted by Russian hackers in 2015.

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Russia was also the likely culprit behind an attack on a Saudi Arabian petrochemical plant in 2018, as its hackers were reportedly linked to the malware called “Triton” which was used. The US then utilised its cyber capabilities to attack Russia’s power grid last year, sending a clear message to Moscow.

What all of these attacks demonstrate is that governments are increasingly able to damage equipment and components, as well as infrastructure, in such a way that is more harmful to civilians, without conventional weapons, never mind nuclear bombs, being used.

There is a now a very real concern that if a power grid and chemical facility can be taken out by hacking into a computer system, then so can other locations of equal or even greater importance. This has been the case in the Middle East over the past year, with a notable increase in cyber conflict between Israel and Iran.

On 9 May, for example, the Iranian port of Shahid Rajaee on the Persian Gulf was hit by a significant cyberattack that brought all of its shipping to a halt. The computers regulating the port’s traffic were apparently targeted by Israeli hackers. This was in retaliation for an earlier attempt by Iran to target Israel’s water infrastructure. As usual, Israel responded in a more devastating manner.

Iran’s “cyber army” was launched in 2005 and its funding has been increased sharply over the years. It poses more of a threat to Israel and the US, and may continue to do so.

Washington and Tel Aviv still possess superiority in the cyber field, though, and those involved in Iran’s rejuvenated nuclear programme need to be aware of the potential for cyberattacks similar to that in 2010 and Israel’s targeting of the Natanz nuclear facility earlier this year, which Tehran has so far managed to curtail. Nuclear proliferation in the Middle East may well be on the way, but the immediate and potentially more dangerous threat is cyberwarfare.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.