Iran nuclear scientist killed; Ahmadinejad claims Stuxnet sabotage

Even Iranian 'admissions' don't clarify who sent Stuxnet, if anyone

The assassination of a nuclear scientist and statements from Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that the centrifuges that are central to its nuclear-development program were digitally sabotaged make it look a lot more likely that the Stuxnet worm was part of a coordinated, persistent attempt to derail the country's nuclear program.

Two Iranian scientists were actually attacked, by motorcyclists who maneuvered through traffic to attach bombs to the cars in which they rode. Majid Shahriari, who managed a "major project" for the country's Atomic Energy Organization was killed and another scientist was injured, according to a report in the NYT.

"Undoubtedly the hand of the Zionist regime and Western governments is involved," according to Ahmadinejad.

Or not.

Ahmadinejad isn't exactly the most credible guy among world leaders. Among other things, he's denied the holocaust ever happened, said most people in the U.S. believed the U.S. government was behind the 9/11 attacks to help ensure Israel's survival, denied there were gays in Iran, and is among the more hyperbolic Israel-haters in the Muslim world.

He may be telling the straight truth in this case, but the odds are he's talking to create an impact, not to reveal that Stuxnet may (or may not) have damaged the centrifuges serving the Bushehr reactor, but to claim the West does more than just kill people to get what it wants.

Like many other strongman political leaders, the more he confronts the U.S., the more credible he becomes in other parts of the Muslim world.

No matter how much Ahmadinejad exaggerates the truth, however, it's hard to deny it looks as if someone is attacking Iran's nuclear program.

In addition to the one scientist killed and one wounded today, two other top nuclear experts have been murdered since the open

Shahriari is actually the third top nuclear scientist killed in Iran, according to the Times.

Last January, according to the Times, a bomb killed one physics professor outside his house. Another died of gas poisoning in 2007.

None of which, again, adds weight to either end of the argument about whether Stuxnet was specifically redesigned and redirected as a weapon to attack Iran's nuclear program or to who might have sent it.

Israel and the U.S. are the best candidates, but aren't the only ones.

On the other hand, Israel not only bombed Saddam Hussein's nuclear facility in 1981, it also took out another in alleged nuclear development site in Syria in 2007.

The materials, according to this report, came from North Korea, which is often accused of selling nuclear technology from its surprisingly sophisticated facilities to anti-Western countries.

Which means two of the most heavily armed, volatile and anti-Western countries in the world -- both of which are engaged in nuclear brinksmanship and good old-fashioned evil-scientific sales of nuclear weapons to other bad guys -- can at least be slowed down by a tiny piece of software of the kind filtered out of your email and naughty Web browsing dozens of times per day.

Better than a flight of F-15s, as the man said.

Not that much better, but a little.

My first take on this was that, regardless of where it came from, a virus that directly attacks systems that control our physical world, rather than the digital one, crossed a dangerous line.

Now the DHS agrees, which forces me to assume I missed something. Actual security experts say it was a big step, but not a revolutionary one.

Fine. In closely analyzing the code, I'm sure they're right. In closely examining everything else, I'm sure I am (despite concurrence from DHS).

I'm still not sure if Stuxnet was aimed at Iran and its nuclear program; not enough evidence has been made public (or possibly not enough exists) to make a clear decision.

Given the choice, I really hope it's true, and that there's more where that came from.

I don't have a lot of confidence we can hold the Djinn in this particular bottle much longer, though, no matter how good Stuxnet is at its alleged job.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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