Stealth war revealed
In an unprecedented move, Israeli officials own up to a cyber attack targeting Iran. But why, asks Saleh Al-Naami
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A Palestinian woman sits with her wounded grandsons in a hospital in Deir Al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip, after an Israeli airstrike, Sunday; a Palestinian protester holds a flag in front of Israeli soldiers and border police during a protest outside Ofer prison near the West Bank city of Ramallah, marking the anniversary of the 1967 Middle East War, Tuesday
Recently a large number of retired Israeli generals volunteered to give interviews to local and foreign media to clearly state that Israel is behind the recent cyber offensive on sensitive Iranian computer systems. The Russian cyber security software maker Kaspersky Lab was the first to leak the attack, in which the "Flame" virus was used. In a detailed report, the company said that the goal of the attack was to gather intelligence about Iran's nuclear intentions, not as an attack like the "Stuxnet" virus in 2009 that disrupted centrifuge equipment for uranium enrichment at Iranian nuclear facilities.
What was surprising is that Moshe Yaalon, deputy prime minister and strategic affairs minister, openly declared that Israel was behind the cyber attack. This was the first time in Israel's history that an Israeli official openly admitted his country's responsibility in a covert operation against another state. Yaalon's unprecedented move primarily aimed to conceal the US's role in the attack, since many sources confirmed that the US played a key role in it.
According to Israeli analysts, Yaalon was quick to claim Israel's responsibility to prevent US President Barack Obama from using the attack to improve his standing in the US presidential race. This move by Israel angered the White House which leaked news to The New York Times that the US -- not Israel -- is the actual perpetrator of the attack, and that there are strict orders by Obama to intensify cyber attacks on Iran's nuclear programme.
Israelis agree that the White House leak sends a message to US public opinion, and American Jewish organisations especially, that Obama is determined to stop Iran's nuclear programme. Also, that criticism of this administration's policies on Iran by some members of the Israeli government is unfounded. Whether or not the most recent cyber attack was carried out by the Americans or Israelis, or a joint effort, it is clear that cyber attacks against Iran's nuclear programme have become one of the most effective direct devices being used to curb Iran's ability to sustain a nuclear programme.
Amos Harel, a military analyst with Haaretz newspaper, asserted that a military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities ahead of US presidential elections is not a realistic option, since Obama would never approve it. Obama, writes Harel, is worried that such an attack would negatively affect his bid for a second term because it would trigger high oil prices, which would compound the economic crises in the US. This would directly serve the interests of the Republican candidate.
Regardless of the role of these cyber attacks, everyone in Israel agrees they are not enough to halt Iran's nuclear programme. Former Army Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi explained that the strategic goal of thwarting the Iranian nuclear programme is based on three main pillars: a covert war; strict political and economic sanctions; and a real and serious military threat. The covert war includes cyber warfare, assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists, and bombing Iran's nuclear infrastructure.
Ashkenazi stated that a covert war might delay Iran acquiring a nuclear bomb, but it would not stop the programme altogether. Thus, despite the claimed successes of cyber attacks, Israeli officials are still putting pressure on the US administration to take military action against Iran's nuclear programme, by directly threatening that Israel would step in if Washington doesn't. Decision makers in Tel Aviv believe Washington fears the repercussions of an Israeli attack on US interests in the region, therefore Israeli officials are trying by all means to suggest that Israel is committed to military action against Iran's nuclear programme.
At a seminar at Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies, Israel's Defence Minister Ehud Barak expressed deep concern because there is an impression in Washington that Israel has stepped back from the option of using military action against Iranian nuclear programme targets. "This is not true," Barak insisted. "We assert our right to use all means to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, because it is threatening to use them against us."
Despite his fiery words, however, Barak said that Israel does not believe 2012 will be a decisive year in dealing with Iran's nuclear programme, meaning that Israel will not necessarily attack Iranian nuclear facilities within the year. This may be because Israel realises that cyber attacks and other components of the covert war against Iran over the past three years has undermined Tehran's ability to continue its nuclear programme just as planned, and therefore there is no urgency to take immediate military action. At the same time, Tel Aviv wants Washington to lead the world in further economic sanctions against Iran since such a step would force decision makers in Tehran to back down from plans to develop nuclear weapons.
One cannot ignore the fact that some Israeli security officials doubt Tel Aviv's abilities to carry out such an attack, since all Israeli estimates confirm that any attack on Iran's nuclear programme would only delay it for another three years.
Professional military circles differ in their recommendations on what steps to take next against Iran. Former director of Military Intelligence Amos Yadlin argues that a nuclear Iran would be a worse threat to the world than the Cold War between East and West since the 1950s. Yadlin, the director of Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies, supports military action against Iran and believes it is unlikely that Iran is capable of strongly responding to an attack by Israel.
He noted, however, that the success of an Israeli military attack against Iran would depend on how the world community would react in the aftermath. Yadlin suggested that world countries must maintain economic and political pressure on Tehran after the proposed Israeli military attack, and emphasised the need to gather "international legitimacy" to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons at any cost.
But former Mossad director Meir Dagan entirely disagrees, and warns that after an attack Iran would be entirely free of any international restrictions and would hastily step up the pace of nuclear weapons production. An attack would also give Iran the right to respond to Israel through powerful missile attacks that could kill thousands of Israelis. Dagan went further than speaking against attacking Iran's nuclear facilities, and convinced a number of Western intelligence chiefs to co-sign a recent op-ed article in The New York Times that asserts that Iran's nuclear programme can be stopped through economic sanctions and covert wars. The article also warned that a military attack would have counter results.
No doubt, Israel's threats against Iran are an attempt to influence the positions of superpowers who will meet mid-month with Iranian officials to hear Tehran's final response to their proposal about halting its nuclear programme, before these countries impose unprecedented economic sanctions against Iran at the beginning of July. Ironically, what adds to Israeli pressure on the US administration is the fact that some of Washington's Arab allies also want it to urgently stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Israeli Radio reported last week that Dennis Ross, former Obama adviser, said that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia threatened the US administration that if Iran succeeds in developing a nuclear weapon, Riyadh would also pursue the same goal.
In a nutshell, Tel Aviv is trying to pressure Washington to launch a proxy war on its behalf, or at least impose highly effective economic sanctions that cause Tehran to shelve its nuclear programme.