UPDATED: COVERT WAR UNDERWAY IN IRAN TO SABOTAGE NUCLEAR FACILITIES: NYT article suggests possible link to the Bible’s Book of Esther

I’m heading to Chicago today to speak at the “Inside The Middle East Crisis Conference” this weekend, as well as to speak at several other events in and around the Windy City.

As I head there, the main storyline in the Middle East I’m tracking is the intensifying covert war underway in Iran by the U.S., Israel and Western intelligence agencies. This is a key element in my forthcoming political thriller, The Twelfth Imam. But it is not fiction. It is all too real.

The goal: to sabotage Iran’s nuclear facilities, assasinate Iranian nuclear officials, and persuade other key Iranian insiders to defect. In January, one of Iran’s top nuclear scientists was killed in a car bombing in Tehran. This followed a series of other scientists dying mysteriously or disappearing without a trace in recent years.

In May 2007, CBS News reported that “intelligence operatives…have sold Iran [nuclear] components with flaws that are difficult to detect, making them unstable or unusable.” Noted Mark Fitzpatrick, the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Non-Proliferation and now Senior Fellow in Non-Proliferation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, “Industrial sabotage is a way to stop the program, without military action, without fingerprints on the operation, and really, it is ideal, if it works. One way to sabotage a program is to make minor modifications in some of the components Iran obtains on the black market, and because it’s a black market … you don’t know exactly who you are dealing with,” Fitzpatrick said.

The latest development is a mysterious and highly aggressive “malware” virus of unknown origin that is suddenly plaguing computer systems at nuclear facilities and other industrial plants throughout the Islamic Republic. The effect appears to be so severe that Iran had to announce at least a two month delay is the launch of on-line operations at its Bushehr Reactor that the Russians helped build. Indeed, an estimated 30,000 computers in Iran have been infected. Neither the CIA nor Israel’s Mossad has commented, much less claimed credit. Nor are they likely to do so. Perhaps they are not involved. But it may be that the relative success of this on-going and intensifying covert war inside Iran accounts for why Israel has not taken direct military action thus far.

On Thursday, the New York Times ran an intriguing story with this headline: “In a Computer Worm, a Possible Biblical Clue.” Wrote reporters John Markoff and David Sanger, “Deep inside the computer worm that some specialists suspect is aimed at slowing Iran’s race for a nuclear weapon lies what could be a fleeting reference to the Book of Esther, the Old Testament tale in which the Jews pre-empt a Persian plot to destroy them. That use of the word “Myrtus” — which can be read as an allusion to Esther — to name a file inside the code is one of several murky clues that have emerged as computer experts try to trace the origin and purpose of the rogue Stuxnet program, which seeks out a specific kind of command module for industrial equipment. Not surprisingly, the Israelis are not saying whether Stuxnet has any connection to the secretive cyberwar unit it has built inside Israel’s intelligence service. Nor is the Obama administration, which while talking about cyberdefenses has also rapidly ramped up a broad covert program, inherited from the Bush administration, to undermine Iran’s nuclear program. In interviews in several countries, experts in both cyberwar and nuclear enrichment technology say the Stuxnet mystery may never be solved….”


Meanwhile, here are other key stories I’m tracking this morning:

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