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NATO Study: US-Israeli Stuxnet Cyberattack Against Iran Was an Illegal “Act of Force”

(Photo: Flickr Creative Commons)

(Photo: Flickr Creative Commons)

A study commissioned by NATO has found that the 2009 US-Israeli cyberattack on Iran’s nuclear program was “an act of force” that was likely a violation of international law.

The Washington Times reports that the study, published in a manual commissioned by NATO’s cyber defense center in Estonia, accuses the US and Israel of violating the United Nations charter by presumably unleashing the Stuxnet computer worm against cascades and centrifuges at Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment plant in 2009 and 2010, and possibly in 2008 as well. It is known that Stuxnet was developed by Israel and the United States, most likely in a bid to stymie Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons, although the US does not acknowledge having any role in the attack. The devastating cyberattacks are believed to have set the Iranian nuclear program back by several years, although US and Israeli military and civilian leaders concur that Iran was not and is not trying to develop nuclear weapons.

“Acts that kill or injure persons or destroy or damage objects are unambiguously uses of force,” the Tallinn Manual on the International Law Applicable to Cyber Warfare states.

“According to the UN charter, the use of force is prohibited, except in self-defense,” Michael N. Schmitt, the manual’s lead author and professor of international law at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island told the Washington Times.

Schmitt said the study’s authors unanimously agreed that the US-Israeli actions against Iran constituted acts of force, but that they were split over whether or not the cyberattacks rose to the level of “armed attacks.” According to Democracy Now!, some of the authors believed that the US-Israeli actions were indeed an “armed attack” that marked the start of a conflict that entitled Iran to use force to defend itself.

Under the UN charter, an armed attack by one state against another entitles the attacked state to retaliate with force in self-defense. A state of armed conflict then exists, with all involved parties subject to the laws of war, including the Geneva Conventions.

Although the United States nor Israel has ever publicly acknowledged responsibility for the Stuxnet attacks against Iran, US officials have anonymously admitted to numerous news sources that the two allies carried out the attacks. According to these sources, the cyberattacks, codenamed Olympic Games, begun during the George W. Bush administration and continued during Barack Obama’s tenure. The New York Times reported in June 2012 that Obama “secretly ordered increasingly sophisticated attacks on the computer systems that run Iran’s main nuclear enrichment facilities.”

The United States has repeatedly asserted that “all options are on the table,” including military force, when dealing with Iran and its nascent nuclear program. The threat Iran poses to Israel’s security, specifically Iran’s vow to “wipe Israel off the map,” is often cited to justify Washington’s aggressive tone towards Tehran, although even Israel’s deputy prime minister admits that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad never actually said anything about “wiping Israel off the map.”

While some of the authors of the NATO-commissioned study on cyberwarfare believe that the US-Israeli Stuxnet incidents constitute an “armed attack” against Iran, the United States has been engaged in hostile behavior towards the Islamic Republic since the Bush administration. The US has trained and supported the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, a terrorist group responsible for deadly attacks against both Americans and against Iran. And in addition to the covert cyberwarfare campaign waged against Iran’s nuclear facilities, the US and Israel are believed to be behind a series of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists. Former US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta coyly admitted that he had “some ideas” who carried out those targeted killings.

Iran has not retaliated for any of the hostile actions committed by US, Israel and allied groups on Iranian soil.

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