Is Rumored Saudi – Israeli Collaboration on a “Super Stuxnet” Iranian Disinformation?

Photo source: FARS News Agency

There is lots of chatter in the media and on the internet speculating on a possible Israeli Saudi entente to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program with a Super Stuxnet malware.  That speculation was triggered by an Iranian FARS agency report on November 30, 2013  concerning  a supposed alliance of convenience between the Jewish nation and the Wahhabist Saudi Kingdom, “Riyadh, Tel Aviv Cooperating to Sabotage Iran’s N. Program.”.  The report focused on  possible of  development a coordinated sabotage effort aimed at delaying and ultimately destroying Shiite Iran’s achievement of nuclear breakout.  Some seasoned observers considered this part of an elaborate Iranian disinformation campaign in the wake of the November 24th P5+1 deal struck with Iran in Geneva.

Here is what FARS reported that gave rise to the speculations:

“Saudi spy chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and director of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency Tamir Bardo sent their representatives to a meeting in Vienna on November 24 to increase the two sides’ cooperation in intelligence and sabotage operations against Iran’s nuclear program,” an informed source close to the Saudi secret service told FNA on Saturday.

“One of the proposals raised in the meeting was the production of a malware worse than the Stuxnet (a comprehensive US-Israeli program designed to disrupt Iran’s nuclear technology) to spy on and destroy the software structure of Iran’s nuclear program,” the source who asked for anonymity due to the sensitivity of his information added.

[…]

Bandar himself had also earlier met Bardo in Jordan’s Aqaba port city, a meeting which elicited outrage from Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz who had already advised the Saudi spy chief to run indirect and clandestine consultations with the Israeli regime on strategic issues in the Middle East. In the wake of the secret talks, Prince Salman ordered the prosecution of the spymaster.

In addition to the Iranian disinformation campaign directed at exposing a possible Israeli -Saudi entente aimed at conducting cyber warfare against Iran’s  nuclear program there were other defensive moves by the US played out in Washington, Jerusalem and Bahrain this week.

President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry began an intense public relations campaign this past week. That began Wednesday evening with a final Hanukkah candle lighting ceremony in the White House. That event featured a Holocaust survivor lighting the final blaze of candles for the eighth evening of the Jewish holiday. This provided an opportunity for President Obama  to make a pitch to the American Jewish community that the interim deal would grant time for negotiations to perfect a permanent one  blocking Iran from achieving a nuclear breakout threatening Israel’ s existence. On Thursday in Jerusalem, Secretary of State Kerry briefed Israeli PM Netanyahu on the P5+1 interim deal that the latter had roundly criticized as an “historical mistake”.

According to the Washington Post, Kerry was suggesting that Netanyahu provide some ‘breathing room’ to permit the Geneva deal to proceed to a definitive final agreement forestalling Iran’s nuclear weapons development. Netanyahu’s objections were that the current negotiations track  would not lead to dismantling Iran’s nuclear program, let alone prevent it from achieving a nuclear capability.  Kerry was trying to prevent Netanyahu from emboldening bi- partisan Congressional allies in Washington from rushing to judgment and passing strengthened sanctions.  As this weekend began, another voice in  Administration’s PR campaign for the P5+1 interim deal  with Iran was heard.  Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel, in his remarks, today, at the Manama Dialogue with the Gulf Cooperating Council States  suggested that a military option was a complement to the current diplomatic track with a nuclear Iran. Further, that arms and other support would still flow to America’s querulous allies in the Gulf. That may have sent a message to Netanyahu in Jerusalem that Israeli consideration of a unilateral action against Iran’s nuclear program was unwarranted.

Serious questions have arisen about unresolved arrangements and issues in the P5+1 deal. Jonathan Schanzer of the Washington, DC Foundation for Defense of Democracies noted some glaring examples in a CNN report, “US and Iran See Nuclear Deal Differently”.

On the Arak heavy water reactor:

According to the White House Fact Sheet, this means that “Iran has committed to no further advances of its activities at Arak and to halt progress on its plutonium track.”

[. . .]

According to Reuters, however, Iran could “build components off-site to install later.”  According to the Iranian Eghtesad Online website, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told the Majles that while “no new nuclear fuel will be produced and no new installations will be installed… that “building and construction will continue because currently we are at this stage in Arak.”

On Iran’s rights to continue nuclear enrichment:

U.S. officials claim the Geneva deal does not recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium. Iranian officials claim it does. According to Zarif, “Iran enjoys that right and it is important to recognize that right. This recognition is there [in the agreement].” Similarly, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Seyyed Abbas Araghchi tweeted in Farsi, “Our enrichment program has been formally recognized.”

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also boasted that the “nuclear rights of the people of Iran and their right to enrichment was acknowledged by global powers.”Rouhani later declared that “enrichment, which is one part of our nuclear right, will continue, it is continuing today and it will continue tomorrow and our enrichment will never stop and this is our red line.”

On the reality of Sanctions relief under the P5+1 deal:

According to the White House Fact Sheet, Iran will receive approximately $7 billion in sanctions relief over six months. However, according to Araghchi, the Geneva deal will provide Iran with access to $15 billion over that time. Iranian officials have further reportedly claimed that the United States has unfrozen $8 billion in Iranian assets thus far. The math on the deal remains somewhat fuzzy in Washington.

President Obama stated that the “broader architecture of sanctions will remain in place and we will continue to enforce them vigorously.” Rouhani, however, claimed that “cracks in the sanctions organization have begun…and as time passes, the space between these cracks will increase.” And in other remarks, the ever-smiling Rouhani boasted that “we broke the structure of sanctions.”

The lack of transparency and appeasement at Geneva has aroused concerns in Washington, in Jerusalem and Riyadh. Thus giving rise to the speculations about an Israeli- Saudi Entente tilting towards covert sabotage of Iran’s nuclear program.  There are several cautionary notes. The first is the rumored accusations by the Administration that Israel may have leaked information about the Stuxnet malware joint development program with the US begun during the Bush Administration. Israel has contended it was the other way around.

The FARS report was clearly meant to widen the divide between the Administration and the Saudis. The Saudis are angry over the Administration  failures to actively support the Sunni Islamist opposition in the Syrian civil war.

There is also the sense that broad spectrum use of Malware like Stuxnet may incur  “collateral damage”.  Eugene Kaspersky,  principal at the Russian anti-virus Kaspersky Institute,  recently commented at an Australian conference that, “Stuxnet – the famous worm widely credited with crippling the Iranian nuclear weapons program for several years – also infected the internal network of a Russian nuclear plant. Unspecified malware has even reached the International Space Station”.

That point was amplified in a post by Luigi Pagnani,  Editor in Chief  of Cyber Defense Magazine in the on-line journal, Security Affairs, “Israel and Saudi Arabia aHudare plotting a cyber weapon worse than Stuxnet”.   We have edited his conclusions, as follows:

Israel and Saudi Arabia consider Iran an enemy to destroy.  Progress in the Iranian nuclear program is not acceptable to both governments and represents a dangerous threat.

The creation of cyber weapons is no less dangerous than the Iranian nuclear program.  The diffusion of such malware could cause serious damage to a critical infrastructure with unpredictable results, not to exclude the possibility of  directly affecting civilian populations.

It is absolutely necessary that there be development of a legal framework for using a cyber weapon with rules of engagement. A cyber weapon could have effects similar to a nuclear bomb.

The quixotic nature of the rumored Saudi – Israeli Entente endeavoring to disable if not stop ran’s quest for nuclear hegemony is problematic. Walter Russell Mead in a Wall Street Journal op ed, “A Riyadh-Jerusalem Entente”, elaborates on the dynamics of this suggested entente.   He notes in conclusion:

The two temporary allies could settle a few other scores. They could work jointly against Hezbollah and Hamas, perhaps with Egyptian help returning Fatah to power in Gaza. From Syria to Iran, the Kurds might suddenly find they’ve got more money and that their relations with their Sunni Arab neighbors might improve.

Those who think the Israelis and Saudis will have to accept whatever treatment the Americans dish out may be right. But if access to Saudi facilities changes the calculations about what Israeli strikes against Iran can accomplish, the two countries have some careful thinking to do. It would be an error for American policy makers to assume that allies who feel jilted will sit quietly.

The rumored momentary alliance between Zionists and Sunni Supremacist exemplifies the “enemy of my enemy” doctrine rising to the fore. It is only a temporary pact of convenience, at best. In Islamic doctrine it would likely be equivalent to the Treaty of Hudaibaya.  Israel is the convincing dominant techno-military power in the region.  It is able to undertake a possible sabotage program while the Saudis have the money and the pathways to perfect a meaningful threat.  If a victory occurs, courtesy of the alleged Saudi-Israeli entente, a big if, then the Islamic fundamentalists will still retreat to their primal doctrine of hatred toward its Jewish saviors. Saviors who lie frustratingly beyond the control of Wahhabist religious political doctrine. A doctrine of totalitarianism that like Fascism and Communism will crumble and ultimately fail. In this instance it will fail because regional Sunni tribal loyalties coupled with Islamic doctrine will inevitably trump civil polity and modernization.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on The New English Review.