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Iran and the era of cyber infection

Like it or not, we’ve entered a new era in which the global geopolitical balance may be determined by hackers and cyber-activists in hooded sweatshirts rather than career diplomats in fashionable pantsuits.

After President Barack Obama’s March 4 address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee supporting Israel against the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, the leading Republican presidential candidates provided their best options for diffusing the nuclear threat. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich and former senator Rick Santorum would launch an attack, if necessary, while former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney would fill the Middle East with warships and military hardware. We don’t know exactly what Obama would do, but we know he “[has] Israel’s back.” However, amidst all this wartime bravura, there’s another option on the table that has yet to be more openly considered — a cyber-attack to cripple Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.

There is mounting evidence that the U.S. and Israel mounted a similar type of attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities in 2010. On March 4, CBS News' "60 Minutes" covered the so-called Stuxnet virus , which was a bit of computer code programmed to knock out key elements of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Stuxnet worked by steadily infecting a growing number of computers via USB drives until it finally found its way into the computers that control Iran’s nuclear centrifuges, forcing them to spin into oblivion without alerting their operators.

Nobody has actually claimed credit for the creation and deployment of the Stuxnet worm but, due to the sophistication of Stuxnet, Iranian officials and retired intelligence experts have hinted that this attack likely originated with a state government that had deep knowledge of Iran’s nuclear plans — most likely the U.S. or Israel. The likelihood is high that more of these cyber black ops are on the way. Recent reports suggest that nations such as China are already preparing to mount stealth cyber-attacks against the U.S. Given this, it’s hard to believe that the U.S. defense establishment is not also figuring out ways to carry out ever-more lethal covert operations.

Ultimately, the current policy of containment for Iran is destined to fail, for the obvious reason that Israel simply will not allow Iran to complete the construction of nuclear weapons.

That raises the imperative for innovative thinking when it comes to finding ways to conduct warfare and diplomacy in the digital era that doesn’t involve bombs, warheads and missiles. Within the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), there are already steps afoot to integrate hacking into the defense arsenal of the nation, as well as efforts to take on offensive cyber-attack capabilities.

There are obvious advantages to a cyber-attack that takes place out of the public eye. Most importantly, it would avoid the collateral damage of a military attack and obviate the need for a full-on military presence in Iran or assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists. The primary disadvantage, of course, is that we could be opening up a Pandora's Box to the world, in which other nations get access to Stuxnet-like viruses and reverse-engineer them to take out soft targets in the West.

When the president says all options are on the table, I hope that includes cyber black ops against Iran. If it means averting a full-scale war in the Middle East, I’ll take my chances with our best and brightest computer hackers in the U.S. taking on anything our enemies can throw at us.