The New Cold War – Iran and the West Collide
Buried deep inside a desert mountain, Fordow is the crown jewel of Iran’s nuclear program. Revolutionary Guards patrolling the facility last August discovered a rock astride its communication and electricity supply lines. The "rock" exploded when they tried to remove it. It was actually an intelligence-gathering device that had been passing Fordow’s computer traffic back to the West.
That’s what happened, according to Western intelligence sources interviewed by the British Sunday Times. For its part, Iran waited a month before admitting that sabotage had cut the electrical supply to Fordow.
Iran has a nuclear program that it says is for peaceful purposes only. Iranian officials have threatened Israel numerous times. Some interpreted those comments as calling for the destruction of Israel, others as vague threats. Iran also has ballistic missiles capable of hitting Israel.
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The West cannot be sure of Iran’s intentions, but they can estimate Iranian capabilities. What they see is a nuclear program progressing towards the potential for creating nuclear weapons. A nuclear-armed Iran, especially with ballistic missiles, is deemed unacceptable to the West.
Western diplomacy has so far failed to negotiate a solution. Economic sanctions have increased over time but have not halted the Iranian program. A single Israeli airstrike dealt a significant blow to both Iraqi and Syrian nuclear programs in years past. Each of those programs consisted of a single above-ground site; Iran’s nuclear sites cannot be decimated so easily. There are a number of them, including underground ones such as the above-mentioned Fordow. Destruction of Iranian sites would require a military campaign, and it is unknown if Israel could successfully conduct such an operation alone. No matter who undertakes it, the results and ramifications of such a campaign are quite uncertain, so the Western strategy appears to be to use just about any means short of all-out war to halt or at least delay Iran’s nuclear development.
Welcome to the new Cold War.
The struggle shares characteristics of the old one: covert actions, cyberattacks, and overflights. Deception, denial, and the fog of war abound.
Assassination characterizes both cold wars. Targets were once the Pope or Fidel Castro. Today they are scientists or tourists. Each side accuses the other of terrorism, of killing the other’s innocent civilians. At least five Iranian scientists have been assassinated since 2010, often by the tactic of having a rider on the back of a motorcycle place a small magnetic bomb on the victim’s moving automobile. In August, some captured would-be assailants "confessed" on Iranian TV. The TV program claimed they were working for Western intelligence agencies, a charge that is denied by the West.
There have been a number of assassination attempts against Israeli diplomats since 2011. The U.S. believes that Iran was behind a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington. Stranger plots have been uncovered, such as two Iranians arrested with explosive chemicals hidden on a Kenyan golf course. But not all have been uncovered: five Israeli tourists and their Bulgarian driver were killed by a suicide bomber in Bulgaria last summer. Israel accused Iran and its Lebanon-based proxy, Hezbollah, of being behind the attacks, but both denied it.
Sabotage is also practiced in this murky conflict. Iran recently discovered tiny explosives in Siemans computer equipment it purchased, apparently on the black market. The increased vigilance may be the outcome of a successful attack on Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility a few years ago, in which its power supply blew up.
In addition to the above-mentioned explosion at Fordow, an intelligence-gathering device may have also been recently discovered in Natanz. An Iranian official mentioned that the electricity had also been cut at this site but did not say when. He may have simply been referring to the previous explosion in the power supply, or it may have been a second intelligence-gathering device exploding at this location.
There have been a number of mysterious explosions at Iranian bases in recent years. In October 2010, a blast occurred at a base near Khoramabad, killing 18 Revolutionary Guards. The base houses Iranian Shahab-3 missiles, which are capable of hitting Israel. A little over a year later, a massive explosion caused great damage at Bidganeh, a facility where Iran tests solid-fuel missiles. That blast killed Major General Hassan Moghaddam, described by some analysts as the "architect" of Iran’s ballistic missile program. Iran stated that accidents were the cause of both explosions and blamed the West for the attacks, without offering any proof.
During the first Cold War, both sides conducted overflights. The Americans did theirs with U-2s and SR-71s, and the Soviets with Tu-95s and MiG-25s. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) largely conduct this facet of the conflict now. The U.S. has been flying UAVs over Iran since at least 2004, according to the Washington Post. Iran complained to the United Nations in 2005 about U.S. RQ-7 Shadow and UK-designed Hermes UAVs crashing in its territory. Iran claims to have shot down a number of them over the years, mostly over the Persian Gulf, as well as some over Iran proper in 2011.
American officials admitted to losing an RQ-170 Sentinel UAV over Iran in December 2011 but say it simply lost its way and crashed. Iran claimed to have captured the RQ-170 and put it in display. The Iranians say they jammed the UAV’s GPS signal and then programmed it to land at an airfield in Iran. Western officials expressed skepticism, but it is worth noting that Iranian-backed groups have intercepted RQ-7 Predator UAV data feeds and have reportedly jammed Israeli UAVs flying over Lebanon.
President Barack Obama asked for the Sentinel back, but the Iranians refused. United States Defense Secretary Leon Panetta did say that such missions, apparently over Iran, would continue. For its part, Iran said it would reverse engineer the RQ-170.
Iran claims that Hezbollah has operated UAVs over Israel for a number of years, a charge that Israel denies. However, both agree that a UAV did penetrate Israeli airspace in early October. The UAV took off from Lebanon and flew over the Mediterranean Sea before crossing the Gaza Strip and into Israel proper. Britain’s Sunday Times, citing Middle Eastern sources, reported that the Iranian-built Shahed-129 penetrated dozens of kilometers into Israel before an IAF F-16 shot it down. Iran said that this was not the first such mission, nor would it be the last.
In the early 1980s, the Reagan administration tricked the KGB into stealing faulty computer equipment loaded with malware. The Trojan horse program was responsible for destroying a Siberian gas line. In the new cold war, there have also been extensive cyberattacks against the West and Iran, with each side seemingly targeting the other. Western news organizations say that the U.S. and Israel are behind the cyberattacks on Iran. The Stuxnet worm targeted Iranian nuclear centrifuges at Natanz in 2010. It took off line as many as 20% of the facility’s centrifuges by changing the speed at which they spin.
Another computer virus, "Flame," infected Iranian computers last June. Media reports quote Russian computer experts as saying that Flame and Stuxnet share some code and therefore were created by the same entity. Flame activated various controls on computers while mapping activity in preparation for future cyber sabotage.
Just a month later, another virus hit Iranian computers and networks at both Natanz and Fordow. This virus shut down the computers at both facilities and played a song by the rock band AC/DC to boot.
American officials believe that Iran has conducted recent cyberattacks. Secretary Panetta is concerned enough to have recently commented that the United States could face a "cyber–Pearl Harbor." American officials have blamed Iran for two recent attacks. One was against oil and gas companies in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The Shamoon virus wiped out 30,000 computers at the Saudi oil company Aramco and had a similar effect in Qatar.
The second has been a series of denial of service attacks against American financial institutions since the beginning of 2012. American officials have blamed Iran and warned that the attacks must stop. Not only have the attacks not ceased, but the group carrying out the attacks, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Cyber Fighters, has at times announced its targets in advance.
Just like the first Cold War, the second is being fought on many fronts, but in the first war the specter of nuclear holocaust ultimately restrained the superpowers so that their war remained cold. Observers of the first Cold War could not have accurately predicted how it would turn out or when it would end. Predicting how this one will play out will be just as difficult.
Hans Johnson is a freelance writer living in Naples, Florida.