The Worm in Iran's Nuke Program: Made in Israel?

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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits the Natanz uranium-enrichment facilities in April 2008

Just going by the papers, it's been a busy couple of months for the Mossad, the Israeli spy agency. Saudi Arabia nabbed a vulture wearing a transmitter from Tel Aviv University, hard evidence not of avian research but of a "Zionist plot." The mangled body of an elderly German woman washed up off an Egyptian resort bearing bite marks from a shark. But whose shark? "What is being said about the Mossad throwing the deadly shark in to hit tourism in Egypt is not out of the question," the South Sinai governor was quoted as saying. "But it needs time to confirm." The half-baked always does.

No one was laughing, however, at the report in Sunday's New York Times, a 2,800-word assessment of Israeli involvement in Stuxnet, the computer worm that wreaked havoc with Iran's nuclear program, sending centrifuges into wild gyrations that brought down perhaps 1,000 of the contraptions whose spinning enriches uranium that Israel fears will end up in atomic weapons that would be pointed its way. The newspaper said Israel, in cooperation with Washington, tested the worm on the exact same centrifuge model, known as P-1, that Israeli intelligence had set up at its own Dimona nuclear facility in the Negev Desert in the country's south.

"It's good that the Iranians think we have these capabilities," a senior Israeli intelligence official told TIME, taking care not to confirm the specific deployment of capabilities that Israel is widely known to, in fact, possess.

The Jewish state has a robust high-tech research industry, a private sector nourished on the financial side by global venture capital and on the far more important human side by a stream of veterans of elite units of the Israel Defense Forces. The units are devoted to computer science and warfare, and bear dashingly nerdy names like 8200 and 8153, the latter known simply as Eight One to members of the other government security bodies it brings together in joint operations.

These include a foreign intelligence agency, the Mossad, that has become a major employer of the nerd vets, ramping up its technological capacity hugely under the eight-year tenure of Meir Dagan. Dagan, a rumpled figure who paints huge canvases in his spare time, formally left the spy agency last week, but not before gathering Israeli reporters together to make an important announcement. Iran's nuclear program, he said, has sustained so much damage that the earliest it could produce an atomic weapon would be 2015. The date pushed back by four years the last public estimate, and was apt to change again. Dagan made clear that 2015 was the earliest Iran could produce a warhead if its program suffered no further setbacks starting from today — in other words, if Israel, the U.S. and other worried parties stopped trying to derail it.

Only some of that effort has come to light. The Times reported that whatever Stuxnet has already done, by taking over the German-made Siemens computers that operate the centrifuges, the alien software may well hold malevolent code yet to be heard from. And for years before the famous worm was implanted, U.N. inspectors detected other technical setbacks in the Iranian program. Some likely resulted from equipment foreign intelligence agencies arranged to have sold to Iran. In a process as delicate as nuclear engineering, a machine relied upon to produce specific measurements could, for example, if deliberately programmed to produce incorrect readings, likewise produce delays and frustration, at the least.

Then there's the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists. Last week, state-controlled news agencies in Iran displayed a young man who claimed to have killed Masoud Ali Mohammadi at the direction of Israeli intelligence. The scientist perished a year ago when a remote-controlled bomb was detonated under his car, a method that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad described as "Zionist-style," Mossad hit teams having combined personal automobiles and remote-controlled bombs since the 1970s.

In November, Majid Shahriari was killed in similar circumstances. The nuclear engineer was identified as the top scientist in the Iranian nuclear program, a figure whose removal would create a significant loss in institutional knowledge. Another nuclear scientist, with ties to the Revolutionary Guards, survived an assassination attempt the same day.

Reflexive is the word for Iran's immediate attributing to the "Zionist entity" almost anything it doesn't like. But when it comes to mayhem in the Iranian nuclear program, the enterprise that Israel has for years regarded as by far the greatest threat to its existence, Israeli officials barely muster denials. News media in Israel are constrained by censorship rules when reporting on national security, but the press is permitted to pass along what's reported in foreign outlets. So Iran's parading of its alleged Mossad operative was widely reported in Israel, along with photos of the guns and passports Iranian authorities claimed to find with him.

The Times report was also widely quoted, though not with the relish of Dagan's farewell briefing to Israeli reporters. There, in a transparent warning to hawks, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the outgoing spy chief emphasized that the Iranian nuclear program was in such trouble that it would be rash and counterproductive for Israel to send warplanes to bomb it.

And with that, Dagan turned over the director's chair to the longtime deputy of the Mossad. Tamir Pardo comes to the job with 30 years of experience in the agency, notably in operations and technology.

— With reporting by Aaron J. Klein / Tel Aviv