U.S. had cyber-attack plans for Iran’s Fordo

In the early years of the Obama administration, the United States developed an elaborate plan for a cyber-attack on Iran in case the diplomatic effort to limit its nuclear programme failed and led to a military conflict, according to a forthcoming documentary film and interviews with military and intelligence officials involved in the effort.

The plan, code named Nitro Zeus, was designed to disable Iran’s air defences, communications systems and key parts of its power grid, and was shelved, at least for the foreseeable future, after the nuclear deal struck between Iran and six other nations last summer was fulfilled.

Contingency plan

Nitro Zeus was part of an effort to assure President Barack Obama that he had alternatives, short of a full-scale war, if Iran lashed out at the United States or its allies in the region. At its height, officials say, the planning for Nitro Zeus involved thousands of U.S. military and intelligence personnel, spending tens of millions of dollars and placing electronic implants in Iranian computer networks to “prepare the battlefield,” in the parlance of the Pentagon.

The U.S. intelligence agencies developed a cyber plan to disable the Fordo nuclear enrichment site, which Iran built deep inside a mountain near the city of Qum. The attack would have been a covert operation, which the President can authorise even in the absence of a continuing conflict.

Fordo has long been considered one of the hardest targets in Iran, buried too deep for all but the most powerful bunker-buster in the U.S. arsenal. The proposed intelligence operation would have inserted a computer “worm” into the facility with the aim of frying Fordo’s computer systems — effectively delaying or destroying the ability of Iranian centrifuges to enrich uranium at the site. It was intended as a follow-up to “Olympic Games,” the code name of a cyber-attack by the United States and Israel, which destroyed 1,000 centrifuges and temporarily disrupted production at Natanz, a far larger but less protected enrichment site.

Under the terms of the nuclear agreement with Iran, two-thirds of the centrifuges inside Fordo have been removed in recent months, along with all nuclear material. The facility is banned from any nuclear-related work and is being converted to other uses, eliminating the threat that prompted the attack plan, at least for the next 15 years.

The existence of Nitro Zeus was uncovered in the course of reporting for Zero Days , a documentary film slated to be shown at the Berlin Film Festival. Directed by Alex Gibney, who is known for other documentaries including the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side , the documentary describes the escalating conflict between Iran and the West in the years leading up to the agreement. — New York Times News Service

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