Iranians Say Nuke Project Hit by New Computer Virus

Revolutionary Guard commander killed in Saturday's munitions blast.

Iran has acknowledged for the first time that it has been the target of a new computer virus designed to do damage to its computers. The admission was made by Iran's civil defense chief, General Gholam Reza Jalali. He told the official Iranian news agency that computer experts were able to identify the virus, called Duqu, and bring it under control. The Iranians, Jalali said, developed software capable of controlling the virus and a special unit that works to defend the country against cyber attacks has been working around the clock.

The Duqu virus was discovered by the Iranians about a month ago after affecting dozens of countries, including Iran, France, Britain and India. The virus exploits a hitherto unknown weakness in Microsoft's Windows computer operating system. It was disclosed by the American Symantec computer security firm.

Over a year ago, Iranian computers were hit by the Stuxnet computer virus, which caused damage to monitoring systems that were used in conjunction with Iran's uranium enrichment centrifuges at Natanz and at the Bushehr nuclear power plant. The Stuxnet virus caused serious damage to the Iranian uranium enrichment efforts and knocked more than 1,000 centrifuges out of service. Foreign media outlets have attributed the Stuxnet attack to the Mossad espionage agency and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

According to recent reports, it appears that Iran has managed to deal with the damage inflicted by the Stuxnet cyber attack, although the number of centrifuges operating at its uranium enrichment facility is still much lower than it was over two years ago. The resemblance between Duqu and Stuxnet has prompted computer experts to speculate that they were developed and launched by the same undercover entity, although there is no specific evidence of this.

In a separate development, a Revolutionary Guard commander killed in an explosion at an ammunition depot west of Tehran was a key figure in Iran's missile program, the elite military force said in a statement Sunday.

Gen. Hasan Moghaddam was killed together with 16 other Guard members Saturday at a military site outside Bidganeh village, 40 kilometers southwest of Tehran. The Guard said the accidental explosion occurred while military personnel were transporting munitions.

The Guard praised Moghaddam, saying the military force will not forget his "effective role in the development of the country's defense ... and his efforts in launching and organizing the Guard's artillery and missile units," the semiofficial Fars news agency quoted the statement as saying on Sunday.

Meanwhile on Sunday, senior Iranian officials threatened that Iran could withdraw as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and from membership in the International Atomic Energy Agency following the release last week of an IAEA report that took Iran to task for its nuclear program. The report cited evidence that the Islamic republic had been carrying out what it called "activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device."

Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet, which discussed the report on Sunday, that up to this point, "international efforts have not stopped Iran from advancing toward a nuclear bomb," adding that the Iranians could obtain it faster than what people think. "The IAEA report contains only that evidence that would be admissible in court, but the reality is that there are many other things that we don't see and therefore were not written about in the report," the prime minister said.

The speaker of the Iranian parliament, Ali Larijani, roundly attacked the IAEA report, saying it was written in accordance with the demands of Israel and the United States. Iran must consider its continued membership in the international nuclear organization, he added. The comments carry special weight because Larijani is considered close to the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and is a former head of the Iranian national security council, which reports to the ayatollah. In addition, Larijani represented his country in contacts over the Iranian nuclear program with the IAEA and member states of the European Union.

Iran is a signatory to agreements through which it has consented to IAEA oversight of most of its nuclear facilities and has installed cameras and monitoring equipment that send data directly to IAEA headquarters in Vienna. Most of the information contained in the IAEA report released last week was based on evidence gathered through these oversight activities. Additional information was provided by Western intelligence agencies from 10 countries.

For years, there have been concerns in Israel and the West that Iran could one day do what North Korea did, and announce its withdrawal from the IAEA and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. At that point, its nuclear program would not be monitored by any outside agency and it would be free to advance its covert nuclear program on an accelerated basis to develop nuclear weapons.

Those same sources are of the opinion, however, that if took that step, it would be a clear sign that it was no longer interested in maintaining the appearance of compliance with international conventions and that it unequivocally intended to develop nuclear weaponry. With reporting from the Associated Press.