The Flame Cyber Attack: How One Worm Changed the Discourse on an Iran Strike

The revelation that a new malware virus has been targeting Iran's nuclear program has led to speculation about Israel's involvement.

Retired generals, including some who had only the most tenuous connection to cyber warfare during their service, stepped in front of media microphones this week to scatter hints about the Flame virus that attacked computers in Iran and Arab countries in the Middle East. This is the third such documented attack in the past two years, all apparently aimed at the nuclear project of the ayatollahs' regime. The sophistication of the assault, the widespread conjecture (which was not officially confirmed, of course) about the involvement of Jewish genius in its development, and the ostensible proof that the Iranian nuclear threat can, after all, be removed without recourse to dangerous aerial bombing - all this focused international interest on the latest computer bug.

In fact, this is old news which has probably been known for some time to those who are engaged in this realm or are following its developments close-up. Reporting Monday about Flame, Russia's Kaspersky Lab, which deals in information security, was talking about a virus that was developed early in 2010. In September of that year, the Stuxnet malware virus caused considerable damage to computers used in connection with Iran's nuclear project.

Stuxnet, which according to a New York Times investigative report was a joint American-Israeli development, was an offensive tool. For his part, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad admitted the worm had caused damage to his country's centrifuges, though he tried to downplay its importance. This time around, at least according to the report from Russia, the goal of the Flame virus was espionage, not interdiction: It is a means for extracting information from classified computers.

Somewhat perturbed

Former chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi said Wednesday that the international strategy against Iran should be based on three elements: a secret campaign, supported by economic and diplomatic sanctions, and with "the option of the use of credible and available military force hovering above everything." The secret campaign, he added laconically, "buys time, no more than that."

This balance between clandestine sabotage, sanctions and a military assault - and by implication also the situation of fierce tension between Israel's senior political officials and some former top figures in the defense establishment - was the theme of the Iran discussion held on Wednesday at the annual conference of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made fewer references to the Holocaust and issued fewer warnings this time around. It was Defense Minister Ehud Barak who, with obvious relish, assumed the task of taking on the former defense luminaries.

Barak returned from a mid-May visit to Washington somewhat perturbed. The Israeli military attache to the United States, Maj. Gen. Gadi Shamni, told the defense minister that, against the backdrop of the resumption of the talks between Iran and the six world powers (the P5 +1), the assessment in the American capital was that the danger of an Israeli attack on Iran before the November elections had passed.

Barak immediately set out to correct this impression. "Gen. Shamni told me that an atmosphere of calm now prevails here," he told his hosts. "I want to make it clear: Our position has not changed one iota, not in regard to the talks and not in regard to the implications of the Iranian project."

Barak's presentation at the Tel Aviv conference on Wednesday was apparently intended to uphold the viability of the Israeli military threat, though he went about it in a somewhat complex manner. On the one hand, the minister sounded more committed than ever to the need to remove the nuclear threat - by military means if necessary. On the other, he seemed to be a little less clear about the timing of an attack.

Publicly, Barak is not talking about 2012 as the year for a decision (in closed forums he explains that he does not want to provide the Iranians with advance information about Israel's timetable). Some six months ago, in an interview on CNN, Barak warned that Iran was liable to complete its nuclear consolidation in a "zone of immunity" to an Israeli attack. "It's true that it won't take three years, probably three-quarters [of a year]," he said. At present, he is not going into that level of detail.

Absent this week was the outspoken personal dimension of discourse. For instance, former Shin Bet security service head Yuval Diskin, who recently described Netanyahu and Barak as "messianic," did not speak at the INSS gathering. His friend, former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, showed restraint. Even when Barak stated that the Iranian threat does not allow anyone to sleep well, Dagan did not seize the opportunity to point out that he is not sleeping well precisely because Netanyahu and Barak are making the decisions.

The director of INSS, Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amos Yadlin, who was the director of Military Intelligence until about a year and a half ago, is cautious when talking about Iran. It's clear he has some reservations about the official line being taken by Netanyahu and Barak, but also that he is worried (far more than his colleagues Dagan and Diskin ) that public criticism on his part could be detrimental to the Israeli effort to establish a substantial threat in regard to an attack on Iran.

In his talk, Yadlin presented conclusions that were drawn up by the institute's staff. They are against "containing" the threat; warn that life in the shadow of an Iranian bomb will be far more complex than that during the Cold War; and are less concerned about the likely consequences that an attack on Iran will have for the Israeli home front, if Israel strikes first.

At the same time, the INSS staff warns that an attack on Iran is not a one-off event, and that afterward "it is essential to ensure that the leading forces in the international community will be ready to mobilize for continued obstruction of Iran." The staff maintains that it is critical to "create legitimization" for measures taken against Iran - a posture shared by both Dagan and Ashkenazi in their remarks at the conference. Barak also gave priority to preserving an international coalition, but argued that in the end Israel will be solely responsible for its own security and future.

At the present juncture, ahead of another round of P5 +1 talks with Iran in Moscow in mid-June, and with severe sanctions scheduled to take effect at the beginning of July, Yadlin's last point appears to be of overriding importance: If it is agreed that the campaign against Iran is an ongoing one, which will not end with a military attack but will require a significant international follow-up - Israel will find it very difficult to ensure this if it decides to attack before the November elections, in explicit contradiction to the desire of the Obama administration.

The Syrian debacle

In his remarks this week, Ehud Barak drew an analogy between the future handling of Iran and the world's attitude toward the massacres in Syria. President Bashar Assad lost no sleep over the withdrawal of the Western ambassadors from Syria, Barak said. The defense minister agreed with what Zvi Bar'el wrote in Haaretz on Wednesday: If the international community is responding so slowly to events in Syria, who will ensure that it will take timely action against Iran, when it becomes clear that action is required?

Expectedly, Meir Dagan described Assad's plight as an opportunity. The West, he said, needs to step up the threat against the Iranian and Syrian regimes. Assad's fall, when it happens, will be "an extraordinary opportunity to weaken Iran's status in the region."

The horrific photographs of the bodies of the children who were massacred by Assad's forces in Houla last weekend immediately catapulted the crisis in Syria back to the top of the international agenda. Even though dozens of people are killed every day in Syria (there were some weeks in which an unbelievable daily average of 120 to 140 killings was recorded), the unbearable sight of the bodies of slaughtered children laid out in a row a few days ago made even the most indifferent of the media outlets take notice of the unfolding events there.

Indeed, even before the Houla massacre, numerous testimonies spoke about the murder and rape of minors during efforts by Assad's security forces to suppress the protest movement. But this time it was United Nations inspectors based in Syria, and not opposition spokesmen, who announced that at least 108 people, among them 49 children, had been murdered in Houla. The inspectors also provided additional information, which completely contradicted Damascus' claims: Only 20 of the dead were killed by the army's artillery barrage against the residential neighborhood. The other 88 were executed, most of them by being shot in the head at close range.

These testimonies, combined with the extensive media coverage, prodded Western decision makers to take action. But it's hard not to be somewhat cynical: After 15 months of relentless killing and more than 13,000 dead (according to opposition estimates), Western countries have now remembered to expel the Syrian ambassadors and to recall their own ambassadors from Damascus.

Barak is right: Assad has long since stopped taking the international community into account. He feels secure as long as he enjoys Russian diplomatic support and Iranian financial and military aid, and refuses to accept a plan that will enable him to leave the country safely, along the lines of the Yemen and Tunisia models.

The best evidence of this was seen precisely in parallel to announcements by the European Union countries that the Western ambassadors were being expelled: another massacre at Deir el-Zour (the town adjacent to the nuclear site that was bombed by Israel - according to foreign media reports and the Bush administration - in 2007) with more bodies of civilians who were executed in their homes.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, many dozens of people were killed in Syria, despite the seemingly dramatic action by the West. On Tuesday, Assad met with UN envoy Kofi Anan, who was urgently dispatched to Syria in the wake of the Houla attack. Assad declared, as usual, that the massacre had been perpetrated by gangs of terrorists and not by his forces, but the UN inspectors stated that it was most likely that the civilians in Houla were killed by the president's loyalists. Anan's efforts to achieve a cease-fire have been an exercise in futility, but somewhat pathetically he continues to implore Assad to return to the blueprint he drew up to stop the violence.

For the present, Assad continues to control his army, and his regime shows no signs of disintegrating. Apparently this is a gradual process of weakening. The only development that has emerged with some sort of potential to dissuade the Syrian president from continuing to shell densely populated neighborhoods has been the declarations in recent days by France and Australia to consider a military operation in Syria. While this could also generate brutally extreme reactions by Damascus, the alternative is to allow Assad to go on massacring children and women as long as he wishes.