The Shadow War

Article excerpt

Byline: Christopher Dickey, R. M. Schneiderman, and Babak Dehghanpisheh; With Maziar Bahari, Ronen Bergman, and John Barry

Someone Is Killing Iran's Nuclear Scientists. But A Computer Worm May Be The Scarier Threat.

The covert operations that target Iran's nuclear program suddenly came to light with explosive violence and stunning implications for the future of warfare on Nov. 29. On that Monday morning, dawn had just broken over a bustling Tehran so deeply shrouded in smog that many commuters wore face masks to protect against the fumes and dust in the air. On Artesh Street, among rows of new and half-finished apartment blocks, the nuclear physicist Majid Shahriari was working his way

Through rush-hour traffic with his wife and bodyguard in his Peugeot sedan. A motorcycle pulled up beside the scientist's car. Nothing extraordinary about that. But then the man on the bike stuck something to the outside of the door and sped away. When the magnetically attached bomb went off, its focused explosion killed Shahriari instantly. It wounded the others in the car but spared their lives. A clean hit.

Only a few minutes later and a few miles away, in a leafy neighborhood in the foothills of the Alborz Mountains, again a motorcycle pulled alongside the car of another scientist, Fereydoun Abbasi Davani. A longtime member of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, Abbasi Davani was named specifically in a United Nations sanctions resolution as "involved in nuclear or ballistic missile activities." Sensing what was about to happen, he stopped the car, jumped out, and managed to pull his wife to safety before the bomb went off.

That same morning, in Israel, where many see Iran's nuclear program as a threat to the very existence of the Jewish state, nobody celebrated the Tehran attacks publicly. Nobody claimed responsibility. But nobody denied it, either. And as it happened, that was the morning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Meir Dagan would be stepping down after eight years directing the Mossad and its secret operations against Iran. Under a photograph of Shahriari's thoroughly perforated Peugeot, one of Israel's tabloids ran the headline LAST SHOT FOR DAGAN?

This longest day in a dark war was not over yet, however. In Tehran that Monday afternoon, at a press conference that had been delayed for two hours, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told reporters there was "no doubt the hand of the Zionist regime and the Western governments" had been involved in the attacks on the scientists. Then, for the first time, Ahmadinejad admitted something that his government had tried to deny until that moment: the high-speed centrifuges used to enrich uranium for use as nuclear fuel in reactors, or possibly for weapons, had been damaged by a cyberattack. Iran's enemies--he didn't specify which ones--had been "successful in making problems for a limited number of our centrifuges with software they installed in electronic devices." Ahmadinejad assured the press that the problem was now taken care of. "They are unable to repeat these acts," he claimed. Yet only a few days before, top Iranian officials had declared there was no problem at all.

Rarely has a covert war been so obvious, and rarely have the underlying facts been so murky. Conspiracy theory hangs as heavy in Tehran these days as the smog: a number of Iranian reformists opposed to Ahmadinejad have suggested the two scientists targeted in November, as well as another one, Masoud Ali Mohammadi, killed by an exploding motorcycle in January, were attacked by the regime itself because their loyalties were suspect. All reportedly sympathized to some extent with the opposition Green Movement. Both Mohammadi and Shahriari had attended at least one meeting of SESAME, a U.N.-linked research organization based in Jordan, where Israelis as well as Arabs and Iranians were present. "In the eyes of the Revolutionary Guards, everybody's a potential spy," says a former Iranian intelligence officer, who asked not to be named because of likely retributions inside Iran. …