'Iran recovered quickly from cyber attack'
Washington Post quotes European diplomats as saying Natanz plant's managers 'worked frantically' to repair damage caused by Stuxnet computer worm. American nuclear experts believe damage caused to nuclear facility was relatively minor, say cyber attack 'did not stop or even delay the continued buildup of low-enriched uranium'
A Western diplomat with access to confidential International Atomic Energy Agency reports who insisted on anonymity told the paper that the Iranians "have been able to quickly replace broken machines," and that despite the setbacks, "the Iranians appeared to be working hard to maintain a constant, stable output" of low-enriched uranium.
According to the report, a network of surveillance cameras installed by United Nations inspectors to keep tabs on Iran's nuclear progress recorded last year something unexpected: Workers hauling away crate after crate of broken equipment.
In a six-month period between late 2009 and last spring, the Washington Post said, UN officials were amazed to see Iran dismantle more than 10% of the Natanz plant's 9,000 centrifuge machines used to enrich uranium. Then, just as remarkably, hundreds of new machines arrived at the plant to replace the ones that were lost.
According to European diplomats, the plant's managers worked frantically to replace each piece of equipment they removed. "They were determined that the IAEA's reports would not show any drop in production," one of them said.
Damaged equipment quickly replaced. Natanz facility (Photo: AP)
According to the Post, the IAEA's files also show a feverish - and apparently successful - effort by Iranian scientists to contain the damage and replace broken parts, even while constrained by international sanctions banning Iran from purchasing nuclear equipment.
An IAEA report due for release this month is expected to show steady or even slightly elevated production rates at the Natanz enrichment plant over the past year, the paper said.
An initial report written by nuclear experts from the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) concluded that the damage caused to the nuclear facility as a result of the cyber attack was relatively minor.
"While it has delayed the Iranian centrifuge program at the Natanz plant in 2010 and contributed to slowing its expansion, it did not stop it or even delay the continued buildup of low-enriched uranium," the report said.
'Worm hit Iranians' confidence'Nonetheless, the ISIS report acknowledges that the worm may have undercut Iran's nuclear program in ways that cannot be easily quantified. According to the Post, ISIS concluded that while scientists were able to replace the broken centrifuge machines this time, Iran is thought to have finite supplies of certain kinds of high-tech metals needed to make the machines.
In addition, the worm almost certainly exacted a psychological toll, as Iran's leaders discovered that their most sensitive nuclear facility had been penetrated by a computer worm whose designers possessed highly detailed knowledge of Natanz's centrifuges and how they are interconnected.
"If nothing else, it hit their confidence," said ISIS President David Albright, one of the report's co-authors, "and it will make them feel more vulnerable in the future."
The New York Times reported last month that Israel and the United States were behind the cyber attack. According to the paper, Israel developed in its Dimona facility centrifuges identical to those Iran is operating in Natanz, and tested Stuxnet on them together with the Americans.
The Natanz facility was attacked by the worm twice – in late 2009 and in the spring of 2010. In the fall, when the Islamic Republic confirmed that a worm had infiltrated the facility's computers, the damage was so big that the facility had to be closed for a short while. "An electronic war has been launched against Iran," a Tehran official said at the time.
According to Albright, the Natanz facility could be infected a second time, as the worm has infiltrated so many computers in Iran – about 60,000 according to estimates. But he questioned whether the worm's limited success so far justifies the use of a tactic that will probably provoke retaliation.
"Stuxnet's discovery likely increased the risk of similar cyber attacks against the United States and its allies," he wrote in the ISIS report.
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