AP is reporting a breaking news story that officials of a country hostile to Iran (hint, hint) have leaked an Iranian diagram that plots the force of the explosion of a simulated nuclear device:
Iranian scientists have run computer simulations for a nuclear weapon that would produce more than triple the explosive force of the World War II bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, according to a diagram obtained by The Associated Press.
The document, produced in 2008 or 2009 is supposed to put the lie to the notion that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003, as the U.S. NIE claims.
My highly-placed Israeli source says that the diagram was stolen by the Mossad from an Iranian computer. The means of the theft were one of the various malware programs Israel has used to infiltrate Iran’s computer network. Though Stuxnet is the most famous of these programs, it’s unlikely it was used for this job. Duqu, another in the Stuxnet-Flame series of kissing cousin malware, is just the ticket. It was discovered in 2011, but was active as early as 2008 and possibly even 2007.
An independent source confirmed, in the article, that the diagram was the same one supplied by an unspecified intelligence agency (ahem, the Mossad) to the IAEA last year. This provides corroboration of the fact that the Mossad is supplying the IAEA with much of the evidence it uses to evaluate Iran’s nuclear program. While that doesn’t totally invalidate the agency’s work, it certainly warns us to review any of its findings with great care.
But let’s return to the document itself and examine whether it’s the smoking gun the Mossad makes it out to be. First, the passage above claims it is the research output of Iranian scientists. While this may be so, the story doesn’t identify who created the diagram nor explain anything about its provenance. As Prof. Muhammad Sahimi, a professor of chemical engineering at USC and expert in Iran’s nuclear program pointed out to me, any decent undergraduate physics student could produce the same drawing:
Too many graphs like this can be generated by a competent undergraduate student. The graph itself looks low quality, as if it has been drawn by hand. I have asked my students to compute the dashed curve, given the continuous curve…to see whether the guy who drew it even knew that much! In addition, it only shows energy and power versus time, without saying what the source of energy was!
Let’s return to an important observation Sahimi makes above. Reviewing the actual graph, it looks like it was indeed drawn by hand. What nuclear physicist that you know prepares a hand-written graph as he’s about to produce a nuclear explosion? Does this mean that Iran’s nuclear program is so primitive that its scientists don’t have computer programs that enable them to prepare such a graph more professionally? And can we believe that a country that prepares such hand-written graphs has the technical and engineering know-how to explode a nuclear bomb, solely based on this evidence?
The Mossad “summary” (i.e. hasbara talking points) offered to AP says:
The intelligence summary named nuclear scientists Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Majid Shahriari and Fereidoun Abbasi as key players in developing the computer diagrams…
So Israel wants us to believe that Iran’s three most senior nuclear scientists prepared a hand-written graph of a simulated nuclear explosion and that this document proves Iran lied when it said it wasn’t building a nuclear weapon. In fact, it proves, supposedly, that Iran is pursuing such a weapon right now, as you read this. Maybe, maybe not.
Leaving aside the grandiose claims of the AP article, what do we really know about the diagram? That it was produced by someone in Iran possibly between 2008-2009. That it models a nuclear explosion three times that of the U.S. bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That such a large explosion would be extremely unlikely in any experimental program of a nation currently pursuing a nuclear weapon.
In other words, this diagram could’ve been produced by any enterprising Iranian graduate student as part of a class project. It may or may not have anything to do with an Iranian nuclear weapons program. You simply can’t be sure based on the evidence and details offered in the AP article. This is yet another example of the Mossad snookering the world media into reporting “evidence” of Iranian WMDs that isn’t evidence in any sense of the word that you or I know it.
One of the three scientists listed in the Mossad report above was assassinated by Israel in 2010. A second was almost killed in an assassination attempt on the same day. If my source’s claim that the Mossad retrieved this summary via a computer intrusion is true, and the Mossad truly did believe the graph is the product of these three scientists, then this tells us what specific information Israeli cyber-attack tools like Stuxnet and Flame are seeking. Besides exposing the nature of Iran’s nuclear program, they’re attempting to identify suitable targets for elimination. It’s also possible that, whether or not the diagram was truly produced by the three individuals named, that Israel is attempting to justify its assassination program by offering proof that they were indeed working on nuclear weapons.
I’ve written this here before, but can you imagine the Russian NKVD assassinating Edward Teller or J. Robert Oppenheimer in 1949 in order to stop U.S. nuclear weapons development? What would our response have been?
On a related subject, in the past few days Symantec has reported (Kaspersky’s article is here) a hitherto unknown computer virus that attacked corporate and business networks inside Iran in 2010 and possibly before. My Israeli source confirms that this malware too was a product of Israel’s cyber-warriors. Here is how the virus is described:
…We recently came across an interesting threat that has another method of causing chaos, this time, by targeting and modifying corporate databases. We detect this threat as W32.Narilam…What is unusual about this threat is the fact that it has the functionality to update a Microsoft SQL database…
The malware does not have any functionality to steal information from the infected system and appears to be programmed specifically to damage the data held within the targeted database. Given the types of objects that the threat searches for, the targeted databases seem to be related to ordering, accounting, or customer management systems belonging to corporations.
Our in-field telemetry indicates that the vast majority of users impacted by this threat are corporate users.
…Unless appropriate backups are in place, the affected database will be difficult to restore. The affected organization will likely suffer significant disruption and even financial loss while restoring the database. As the malware is aimed at sabotaging the affected database and does not make a copy of the original database first, those affected by this threat will have a long road to recovery ahead of them.
Considering which businesses in Iran would use such databases for ordering supplies, and account and customer management, there are two main candidates: the oil industry and banking sector. The software was designed to sabotage the single most important revenue producer for the embattled Iranian economy. As such this is an example of national industrial sabotage.
On a concluding note: Prof. Sahimi’s new website is Iran News and Middle East Reports. Highly recommended.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.