Friday, January 21, 2011

William O. Beeman--Stuxnet Worm Attack Against Iran—An Exercise in Overkill 

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New America Media, Commentary, 

William O. Beeman, Posted: Jan 18, 2011
The New York Times, in a remarkable effort of reportage has demonstrated with virtual conclusiveness that the Stuxnet computer worm that created damage to Iran’s uranium enrichment equipment last year was an effort by the United States and Israel. No one knows exactly how much damage this destructive program caused to the Iranian equipment, but Israeli officials were evidently convinced that the worm had set the Iranian program back “at least a year.” 

What is pitiful about the Stuxnet offensive is that it is a classic case of overkill. The Iranian nuclear program was already low-level, faltering and nowhere close to producing fuel for electric generation much less for weapons. It was a weak target for this kind of cyber-attack, all the weaker because the attack from this quarter was unexpected.

Moreover, it is unlikely to have achieved anything. Hasn't the United States learned that Iran can't be beaten into submission? In all of history it hasn't worked. Iranians turn resentful and bitter in situations like this and eventually strike back--sometimes behind the facade of quietude. This is the eventual result we can expect. For those who know Persian, think of mokaafaat, "retribution." It is an active force in Iranian life--especially as a reaction to an unjust assault--and applicable here. It is widely believed to be God-driven when there is injustice present, and this action is definitely perceived as unjust and unwarranted.

It is sobering to note that since the Iranian Revolution, Iran has not made even one significant attack against the United States, or for that matter Israel--despite all the attempts to link "proxy" groups to Tehran. Thus, when actions like Stuxnet, or the economic sanctions leveled against Iran spearheaded by the United States are launched, ordinary Iranians naturally become resentful. The pronouncements of firebrand politicians such as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad begin to have the ring of truth.

Iranians who point fingers at the United States (and Israel) for its bullying tactics certainly will have sympathetic listeners, not only in Iran but in the developing world where there is overwhelming sympathy and support for Iran's nuclear program. Nations like Brazil and Turkey already wonder whether they are going to be targeted if they advance technologically, and this questioning is now going to spread.

The United States and Israel are likely to reap the whirlwind in the form of blowback from the Stuxnet caper. The worm spread beyond Iran, and is out there doing its damage elsewhere as well. How long before clever hackers retool it for use against whomever? It may well return to American and Israeli shores in another form to bite everyone in the behind. Moreover, Iran will quickly recover from the Stuxnet damage. Iran has some of the most sophisticated computer technologists in the world. It is capable of purging this virus from its systems, and preventing a more sophisticated attack. To give up on the nuclear program because of this is not in question.

If something as labor intensive as Stuxnet can not be effective in bringing Iran to heel, what might work. Certainly force has proved utterly ineffective. So why not actually try diplomacy? Despite lip service to sitting down with Iran in formal discussions, this has never really taken place. Iran and the United States still do not have any effective diplomatic representation. This makes nuanced communication virtually impossible. As long as the two nations have no platform for dialogue, they will continue to deliver messages through obscure measures such as Stuxnet.

William O. Beeman is professor and chair of the department of anthropology at the University of Minnesota. He has lived and conducted research in Iran and the Middle East for more than 30 years and is the author of The “Great Satan” vs. the “Mad Mullahs”: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other (Chicago, 2008).