Iran atomic program ‘stronger than ever,’ nuclear chief says

Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization and vice president to Hassan Rouhani, said Tehran would resume uranium enrichment with more sophisticated equipment. (AP)
Updated 12 September 2018
0

Iran atomic program ‘stronger than ever,’ nuclear chief says

  • The US flight ban is a new threat to crumbling economy
  • If we have to go back and withdraw from the nuclear deal, we certainly do not go back to where we were before: Salehi

LONDON: Iran increased its threat to regional security on Tuesday by boasting that its nuclear program was more advanced than ever.

Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization and vice president to Hassan Rouhani, said that if US President Donald Trump succeeded in dismantling the 2015 deal to curb the program, Tehran would resume uranium enrichment with more sophisticated equipment.

“If we have to go back and withdraw from the nuclear deal, we certainly do not go back to where we were before,” he said. “We will be standing on a much, much higher position.”

Iran stores centrifuges to enrich uranium at its underground Natanz facility, under surveillance by the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. Salehi said it would build a new facility at Natanz that will produce more advanced centrifuges.

“This does not mean we are going to produce these centrifuges now,” he said. “This is just a preparation. If Iran decides to start mass production of such centrifuges, we would be ready for that.”

If the nuclear deal fell apart, Iran would react in stages, Salehi said. It could enrich uranium “to 20 percent, because this is our need,” and could also increase its stockpile of enriched uranium.

Iran’s fragile economy is already suffering from US withdrawal from the nuclear deal and the reimposition of economic sanctions. Prices have soared, the rial has plunged in value and thousands of Iranians have taken part in street protests demanding regime change. Further sanctions in November will target Iran’s energy sector and slash its crucial oil revenues.

Tehran hoped that the other signatories to the nuclear deal — Russia, China, France, Germany and the UK — would keep it alive, but faced with the threat of blocked access to the US financial system, Western companies from aircraft manufacturers to oil firms have pulled out of Iran.

In a further blow to Iran’s economy, the US renewed its warning to civilian airlines on Tuesday to avoid Iranian airspace. Hundreds of international flights pass over Iran every day, and each is required to pay an overflight fee. Iran refuses to disclose its revenue from these fees, but it is thought to be considerable.

The US Federal Aviation Administration said flying over Iran was risky because of the possibility of interception, and military activities related to the war in Syria.

Flight Service Bureau, which advises airlines, said the deteriorating relationship between the US and Iran must be taken into account when planning flights in Iran’s airspace.

“Although the reopening of Iraqi airspace in November last year has provided additional routing options ... there is no perfect route in the region, and operators must consider their preference for Iraq vs Iran,” it said.


Cybersecurity firm: More Iran hacks as US sanctions loom

Alister Shepherd, the director of a subsidiary of FireEye, during a presentation about the APT33 in Dubai Tuesday. (AP)
Updated 20 September 2018
0

Cybersecurity firm: More Iran hacks as US sanctions loom

  • The firm warns that this raises the danger level ahead of America re-imposing crushing sanctions on Iran’s oil industry in early November.
  • Iran’s mission to the UN rejected FireEye’s report, calling it “categorically false.”

DUBAI: An Iranian government-aligned group of hackers launched a major campaign targeting Mideast energy firms and others ahead of US sanctions on Iran, a cybersecurity firm said Tuesday, warning further attacks remain possible as America reimposes others on Tehran.

While the firm FireEye says the so-called “spear-phishing” email campaign only involves hackers stealing information from infected computers, it involves a similar type of malware previously used to inject a program that destroyed tens of thousands of terminals in Saudi Arabia.

The firm warns that this raises the danger level ahead of America re-imposing crushing sanctions on Iran’s oil industry in early November.

“Whenever we see Iranian threat groups active in this region, particularly in line with geopolitical events, we have to be concerned they might either be engaged in or pre-positioning for a disruptive attack,” Alister Shepherd, a director for a FireEye subsidiary, told The Associated Press.

Iran’s mission to the UN rejected FireEye’s report, calling it “categorically false.”

“Iran’s cyber capabilities are purely defensive, and these claims made by private firms are a form of false advertising designed to attract clients,” the mission said in a statement. “They should not be taken at face value.”

FireEye, which often works with governments and large corporations, refers to the group of Iranian hackers as APT33, an acronym for “advanced persistent threat.” APT33 used phishing email attacks with fake job opportunities to gain access to the companies affected, faking domain names to make the messages look legitimate. Analysts described the emails as “spear-phishing” as they appear targeted in nature.

FireEye first discussed the group last year around the same time. This year, the company briefed journalists after offering presentations to potential government clients in Dubai at a luxury hotel and yacht club on the man-made, sea-horse-shaped Daria Island.

While acknowledging their sales pitch, FireEye warned of the danger such Iranian government-aligned hacking groups pose. Iran is believed to be behind the spread of Shamoon in 2012, which hit Saudi Arabian Oil Co. and Qatari natural gas producer RasGas. The virus deleted hard drives and then displayed a picture of a burning American flag on computer screens. Saudi Aramco ultimately shut down its network and destroyed over 30,000 computers.

A second version of Shamoon raced through Saudi government computers in late 2016, this time making the destroyed computers display a photograph of the body of 3-year-old Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi, who drowned fleeing his country’s civil war.

But Iran first found itself as a victim of a cyberattack. Iran developed its cyber capabilities in 2011 after the Stuxnet computer virus destroyed thousands of centrifuges involved in Iran’s contested nuclear program. Stuxnet is widely believed to be an American and Israeli creation.

APT33’s emails haven’t been destructive. However, from July 2 through July 29, FireEye saw “a by-factors-of-10 increase” in the number of emails the group sent targeting their clients, Shepherd said.