On June 1, the New York Times reported that Obama has secretly ordered sophisticated attacks on the computer systems that run Iran’s main nuclear enrichment facilities. The US may not be alone in detonating cyberweapons—China, Israel, and Russia are also suspects—but its participation in the black arts robs the US of its ability to outlaw such warfare.
In an earlier attack, a worm called Stuxnet, developed by the US and Israel, was unleashed on the Natanz plant. It temporarily took out nearly 1,000 of the 5,000 centrifuges Iran had been using to purify uranium. According to the New York Times report, President Obama had “secretly ordered increasingly sophisticated attacks on the computer systems that run Iran’s main nuclear enrichment facilities, significantly expanding America’s first sustained use of cyberweapons.”
For the US, employing cyberweapons is an attractive alternative to military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities. According to some experts, the Stuxnet worm set back Iran’s enrichment program by eighteen months to two years, although it should be noted that other experts outside the government are more skeptical. Currently, Iran has produced enough material for roughly five or more weapons. At best, the initiation of cyberattacks by the US has enjoyed limited tactical benefits, but has set a dangerous precedent.
A year ago, it looked like the Obama administration was taking the high ground when it unveiled its “International Strategy for Cyberspace.” The document said, among other things, that “aggressive acts in cyberspace” may be viewed by America as acts of war. “When warranted, the United States will respond to hostile acts in cyberspace as we would any other threat to our country,” which may mean the use of “military force.” The US “has no intention of sitting quietly while corporate and governmental computer systems are attacked with impunity.” The report goes on to take the moral high ground. “The digital world is no longer a lawless frontier … It is a place where the norms of responsible, just and peaceful conduct among states and peoples have begun to take hold.” Cyberspace must be “built on norms of responsible behavior.”
Having now engaged in a first strike, the US, by its own statements, is engaged in a preemptive war. Remember how much trouble the US got into the last time it engaged in such a war? Have they learned nothing from Iraq? How might the US respond if Iran engaged some clever 14-year-old computer wiz to unleash a computer worm that attacks its electricity grid or other vital infrastructures?
The cyberattack on Iran comes under the category of “black ops,” dark arts that the US uses to hide its more unsavory activities. Black ops missions are built around “plausible deniability,” so responsibility cannot sheet home to the US. In the past, black operations have included such things as assassinations, economic sabotages, extortions, kidnappings, supporting insurgents and terrorists, and, more recently, through extraordinary rendition, tortures. The best estimate I can find for the size of the US black ops budget is $30 billion, although this figure consists of secret weapon programs, which are usually costly. And so, for decades, the US has preached to the world on the need for peace, democracy, liberty, and the rule-of-law, while employing “black ops” that undermine those very principles.
Iran is no stranger to US black ops. In 1953, the CIA engineered the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Iran led by Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, who had been planning to nationalize his country’s petroleum industry. Little wonder that Iran has little appetite for negotiating with the US on its nuclear program, as history has shown that the US cannot be trusted.
Hypocrisy isn’t exactly a new thing in the affairs of nations. But, in this case, the US has put an end to the possibility of any enforceable international treaty to outlaw cyberwarfare.