BERLIN — In the early years of the Obama administration, the United States developed an elaborate plan for a cyberattack on Iran in case the diplomatic effort to limit its nuclear program failed and led to a military conflict, according to a coming documentary film and interviews with military and intelligence officials involved in the effort.
The plan, code-named Nitro Zeus, was devised to disable Iran’s air defenses, communications systems and crucial 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.
Nitro Zeus was part of an effort to assure President 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 American 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 United States military develops contingency plans for all kinds of possible conflicts, such as a North Korean attack on the South, loosenuclear weapons in South Asia or uprisings in Africa or Latin America. Most sit on the shelf, and are updated every few years. But this one took on far greater urgency, in part because White House officials believed there was a good chance that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel would decide to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, and the United States would be drawn into the hostilities that followed.
While the Pentagon was making those preparations, American intelligence agencies developed a separate, far more narrowly focused cyberplan 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 authorize even in the absence of a continuing conflict.
Fordo is buried in a mountain deep inside an Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps base. The site came to public attention in 2009 when President Obama announced its existence.
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 American 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 cyberattack by the United States and Israel that 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 development of the two secret programs suggest how seriously the Obama administration was concerned that its negotiations with Iran could fail. It also demonstrates the critical role cyberoperations now play in both military planning and covert intelligence operations. American generals began incorporating nuclear weapons into their war plans for protecting Europe or countering the Soviet Union in the 1950s, and in the last 15 years, they have made armed drones a central part of military efforts in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere. In the same way, cyberwarfare has become a standard element of the arsenal for what are now called “hybrid” conflicts.
The existence of Nitro Zeus was uncovered in the course of reporting for “Zero Days,” a documentary that will be first shown Wednesday at the Berlin Film Festival. Directed by Alex Gibney, who is known for other documentaries including the Oscar-winning “Taxi to the Dark Side” about the use of torture by American interrogators, and “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks.”
“Zero Days” describes the escalating conflict between Iran and the West in the years leading up to the agreement, the discovery of the cyberattack on the Natanz enrichment plant, and the debates inside the Pentagon over whether the United States has a workable doctrine for the use of a new form of weaponry whose ultimate effects are only vaguely understood.
Watch the trailer for ‘Zero Day’:
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