The Iranian Foreign Ministry announced on Tuesday that a Yahoo News report linking the Netherlands to a landmark 2007 cyberattack on Iran’s Natanz nuclear enrichment facility is being “carefully examined” and could lead to diplomatic action between the two countries.
The Iranians said they have communicated their “concern and sensitivity” to the Dutch Foreign Ministry, which in turn said it will “convey the issue to the government of the Netherlands.”
The Yahoo News report in question cited sources who said Dutch intelligence agents acted “at the behest of the CIA and the Israeli intelligence agency” to recruit an inside mole who planted the Stuxnet virus in computer systems at Natanz, delaying Iran’s effort to produce weapons-grade nuclear materials by sabotaging its uranium centrifuges. According to the report:
An Iranian engineer recruited by the Dutch intelligence agency AIVD provided critical data that helped the U.S. developers target their code to the systems at Natanz, according to four intelligence sources. That mole then provided much-needed inside access when it came time to slip Stuxnet onto those systems using a USB flash drive.
The Dutch were asked in 2004 to help the CIA and Mossad get access to the plant, but it wasn’t until three years later that the mole, who posed as a mechanic working for a front company doing work at Natanz, delivered the digital weapon to the targeted systems. “[T]he Dutch mole was the most important way of getting the virus into Natanz,” one of the sources told Yahoo.
The Yahoo report credited the Stuxnet cyberattack with “helping to bring Iran to the negotiating table, and ultimately resulted in an agreement with the country in 2015.”
“The revelation of Dutch involvement harkens back to a time when there was still extensive cooperation and strong, multilateral agreement among the U.S. and its allies about how to deal with the Iranian nuclear program – a situation that changed last year after the Trump administration pulled out of the hard-won nuclear accord with Tehran,” the reporters editorialized, citing sources who said German, France, and the United Kingdom were also involved, earning the operation its code name “Olympic Games.”
The Dutch contribution was supposedly important because the Iranians designed their uranium centrifuges with a design stolen from the Dutch by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan and sold on the black market to buyers such as Iran and Libya in the 1990s. The Dutch were able to infiltrate Khan’s network and set up a landmark early example of cyber-espionage.
Yahoo News noted AVID, the Dutch intelligence agency, went on to become a renowned authority on cyber-espionage. Their hacking operations were fairly small in 2007, but they were somewhat reluctantly pressed into service for the “Olympic Games” after some alarming seizures of illicit nuclear equipment bound for Iran revealed Tehran’s nuclear program was much further along than previously believed.
Dutch intelligence was able to provide access to the Khan network that would have taken the U.S. or other European powers years to develop from scratch. According to the Yahoo News report, the indispensable Dutch mole was able to get across the “air gap” (physical separation of the most sensitive Natanz computers from the Internet) and infect them with Stuxnet virus code loaded into a USB drive. Iran eventually arrested several individuals on charges of participating in the Stuxnet operation and may have executed them, but Yahoo’s sources did not say whether the mole was one of them.