In recent months there’s been a lot of speculation about a possible military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Now it appears the attack has come in an unexpected form: Stuxnet, a computer worm that can take over industrial systems and was found in Iran’s Bushehr nuclear plant. Symantec, an antivirus software company, estimates that more than 60,000 computers in Iran have been infected by the worm, the highest rate of any country in the world—a fact that’s led computer analysts to conclude Stuxnet was created by a foreign government.
It’s hard to determine exactly how much damage Stuxnet has done so far. But the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, announced last week that the Bushehr plant’s operations would be delayed by two months. Some analysts saw that as a clear sign the worm had wreaked extensive damage. “We didn’t see a full-blown war. We didn’t see fatalities,” says Ralph Langner, a German computer-security consultant who has studied Stuxnet extensively. “Stuxnet may have cost somewhere between five and 10 million dollars [to create]. That’s cheap compared to an airstrike or a war in the region.”
Iranian officials—who have blamed the U.S. and Israel for the worm—see the attack as the latest round of a cyberwar targeting Iran. (Both Twitter and Facebook have also been cited by Iran as part of a broad effort to gather intelligence and destabilize the country.) After a number of government Web sites were hacked during the disputed 2009 presidential election—presumably by supporters of the opposition—Tehran started to fight back by forming the Iranian Cyber Army, a group linked to the Revolutionary Guards. Last year, these pro-government hackers briefly took down Twitter, and they intend to expand their targets: a Guard spokesman has said that the goal of the Cyber Army is to “conquer virtual space.” As part of that effort, 120 members of the Basij, a youth militia, were recently sent to Mashad for training in “writing weblogs, social networking, psychological operations, protection from Internet spying, mobile phones and their capabilities, Basij cybercenters and videogames that would allow penetration into virtual space.” Regardless of who created Stuxnet, it’s clear that Iran intends to fire its own shots in the cyberwar.