Globe Editorial

The computer worm that could

January 24, 2011

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A BLOODLESS cyber warfare attack has delayed, at least for a few more years, any need to choose between bombing Iranian nuclear sites and allowing that government to acquire nuclear weapons. The appropriate response is a sigh of relief — along with a renewed commitment to halting Iran’s nuclear weapons program through diplomatic and economic pressure.

The departing chief of Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad, without mentioning the cleverly designed computer worm called Stuxnet, has said Iran will not be capable of making a nuclear weapon before 2015. This is roughly the same delay that air strikes against Iran’s known nuclear sites would produce. But the cyber attack doesn’t carry the same risk of Iranian retaliation. No borders were violated, and, even though US and Israeli involvement in creating the worm is widely suspected, its origins have yet to be pinpointed.

Given a respite, America and its allies must now pursue two mutually reinforcing tracks: ratcheting up sanctions on Iran and intercepting materials for its nuclear program, while also persuading Iran of the economic and security benefits it will gain from an agreement to stop short of developing nuclear weapons.

Iranian leaders won’t be persuaded easily. They have been assured over and over again that they can have whatever they need to produce nuclear power for peaceful purposes, but this offer has not convinced them to.

Yet the Stuxnet worm — which infects computers controlling the centrifuges Iran uses to enrich nuclear fuel, causing them to self-destruct — changes the calculus for Iran. In the face of cyber destruction and ever-tougher sanctions, Iran’s leaders may decide that their best option is to forgo nuclear weapons in return for badly needed foreign investment and technology as well as security arrangements favorable to Iran.

Stuxnet’s effectiveness against Iran offers a reminder that US officials must be ready to defend the American power grid, financial system, and industrial base against computer worms. Regardless, Stuxnet’s creators have shown that, even if only Iran can call a halt to its own nuclear program, there are powerful technical ways to slow it down.