It is probably impossible to asses the involvement of British security services in the disruption of Iranian nuclear program absolutely accurately, but from your point of view how important or unimportant this involvement could be?
Anthony Glees, Professor, Director, Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies, University of Buckingham
In the summer of 2010 ‘C’, Sir John Sawers, the head of the Secret Intelligence Service told a conference in London that Western intelligence had disrupted the Iranian nuclear programme using cyber weapons. Whilst it was not 100 per cent clear that he meant that SIS had participated in this operation, those who heard him speak were in no doubt that this is precisely what he did mean.
I think this is an important matter for a number of reasons. For one thing, it shows yet again that Britain’s SIS is at the heart of major international issues and that it takes an active role (the UK has global interests and SIS helps our armed forces maintain a global reach to protect them). Britain intends to remain a global power (we see this in the government’s recent statement to modernize our nuclear submarine fleet). For another Sawers plainly believes that if Iran is not stopped, then a major nuclear war in the region becomes a very real and present danger to the world (he discounts the view held by some that if Iran were to get nuclear weapons it would decrease rather than increase the threat of war because with the exception of the USA in 1945 no state that has nukes has ever used them, not even India and Pakistan who are on the brink of war so frequently over Kashmir).
The fact that Sir John makes these points rather than the Foreign Secretary William Hague (busy disengaging with the EU along with David Cameron) also indicates a flexing of SIS’s muscles after a very difficult period for it (not just the historical aspects of the WMD that was never found but also the strange and still unexplained killing of the SIS/GCHQ officer Gareth Williams).
R. Gerald Hughes, Lecturer in Military History, Department of International Politics, Aberystwyth University
The involvement of SIS (MI6) could very well have been very important. But another factor to consider is the decision to allow the head of SIS to make such a statement in public. This could well be related to the fact that it is well know that there is a widespread belief in Iran that the British SIS is, and has been, constantly active in their country. This reputation for conspiring and manipulating in the Middle East (a reputation, incidentally, which British intelligence continues to enjoy in many countries in the region) is, in the Iranian case, derived from a number of factors. These include British activities during the ‘Great Game’ against the Russian Empire during the nineteenth century; the involvement of SIS (with the CIA) in the coup that removed the nationalist Mosaddeq from power in Iran in 1953; and the general legacy of British colonialism – where Britain had extensive interests to defend from Suez to India to Singapore. It should be notable that the idea that networks of spies endure for many years is a widespread one. The decision to let it be known publicly that the British SIS is on the case with regard to Iran’s nuclear programme could thus be regarded an exercise in psychological warfare – especially as ordinary Iranians could pick up on this via the Internet. Further, in domestic terms the idea that Britain is actually ‘doing something’ will also bolster those in government who favour using sanctions short of military action against Iran.
There have been suggestions for some time behind the scenes that computer experts at Britain’s technical intelligence-gathering organisation GCHQ developed the Stuxnet virus and that MI6 agents then introduced it into the right area of the Iranian nuclear weapons programme to do the most damage. Stuxnet was very complex and was specifically designed to cause maximum damage to the computers used in the Iranian nuclear weapons programme. Cooperation between MI6 and GCHQ is closer than at any time since the Second World War. This came out when GCHQ computer expert Gareth Williams was killed while working alongside MI6 officers at their headquarters at Vauxhall Cross in London. There was some suggestion that Israel might have produced Stuxnet but it is not thought to have the technical expertise required to have produced such a sophisticated virus. Iran has accused both MI6 and the CIA of involvement in the murder of an Iranian nuclear scientist but this is far more likely to have been the work of the Israeli secret service Mossad working with radical Iranian opposition groups.
Christopher Moran, Research Assistant, Department of Politics and International Studies, Warwick University
I was suprised by Sir John’s disclosure. This is not the sort of thing that one expects of the head of SIS, who historically has kept himself in the shadows. It is hard, however, to accept the view of some cynics that this was SIS ‘showing off’ or ‘bragging’. For years, people wanted the intelligence services to be more open, so let’s not suddenly start singing from a different hymm sheet. SIS will almost certainly play a crucial role in disrupting the Iranian nuclear program, since, for now at least, attempts to address the issue through conventional diplomacy have failed. In a perfect world, diplomacy will prevail; sadly, we do not live in a perfect world.
Filed under: Intelligence, Iran, Politics, Security, United Kingdom Tagged: | Anthony Glees, Christopher Moran, Espionage, Intelligence, Iran, Michael Smith, Nuclear Program, R. Gerald Hughes, Security, Security politics, United Kingdom