The Obama administration developed a detailed plan for an expansive cyberattack against Iran’s infrastructure early in President Obama’s term, according to a new documentary premiering this week.
The plan was code-named “Nitro Zeus” and included a range of targets across Iran’s electrical grid, air defenses and communications and transportation systems, according to details from the film revealed Tuesday by The New York Times and BuzzFeed News.
The centerpiece was a targeted cyber strike on the Fordo nuclear enrichment site, buried deep in a mountain near the holy city of Qom.
The documentary film, “Zero Days,” will be screened on Wednesday at the Berlin Film Festival. The film by Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney examines the tensions between the U.S. and Iran in the years before last summer’s nuclear accord and the development of the Stuxnet virus.
According to the Times, which confirmed aspects of the film’s claims through its own reporting, planning for the Nitro Zeus operation began under former President George W. Bush but escalated when Obama entered office in 2009.
The planning came amid heightened concerns about Iran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon and as tensions were riding high in Washington about the prospect that Israel might undertake a unilateral strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities to stop Tehran from building a bomb.
The program was based at the National Security Agency’s headquarters in Fort Meade, Md., and amounted to what Gibney described as “likely the largest and most complex cyber war plan the U.S. has ever created,” according to BuzzFeed.
Thousands of military and intelligence officials were reportedly involved in the operation’s planning, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.
The Fordo site posed a daunting challenge for U.S. and Israeli officials, given its strong protections and location deep underground.
Stuxnet was injected into the Natanz facility partly by the use of so-called “zero-day” exploits, which use previously unknown flaws in computer code to manipulate software. The bug ordered centrifuges to spin out of control, damaging hundreds of them.
Planning for the operation appears to have been sidelined by the nuclear deal signed between Iran and other world powers last year. The accord, which was strongly opposed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, lifts international sanctions on Iran’s economy in exchange for limits designed to prevent it from building a nuclear weapon.