Intelligence sources were quoted by many media outlets as confirming that Israel was behind a cyberattack at the Natanz nuclear facility on Sunday that knocked out power at the plant. The New York Times, for example, quoted two intelligence officials as saying it could take at least nine months to restore Natanz’s uranium enrichment production.
Although Israel did not officially accept responsibility, the military censor took the unusual step of imposing no censorship restrictions on local media, which explicitly credited the Mossad for the covert operation.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi dropped more than a hint when he said in a speech honoring fallen soldiers that “the IDF’s actions throughout the Middle East are not hidden from our enemies’ vision.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to be referring to it when he told an Independence Day toast that “the fight against Iran and its proxies and the Iranian armament is a giant mission. The situation that exists today doesn’t say anything about the situation that will exist tomorrow.”
For his part, Defense Minister Benny Gantz told visiting US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Tel Aviv that Israel views Washington as a key ally against all threats, including Iran. “The Tehran of today poses a strategic threat to international security, to the entire Middle East and to the State of Israel,” Gantz said.
The attack on Natanz appears to have been designed to counter Iran’s efforts to put pressure on the US as it negotiates a return to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. It notably came as Austin landed in Israel for the first high-level visit by a member of the Biden administration, and a day after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani inaugurated new centrifuges at Natanz in a ceremony broadcast live on television.
It also occurred after nuclear talks in Vienna by delegates from Iran, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom concluded what was termed a “constructive” opening week on Friday. They are scheduled to resume on Wednesday.
On the one hand, the Natanz attack is an important development, as is the message conveyed to the Iranians and the Americans. Iran’s nuclear plans must be stopped, the US should be paying attention, and international powers must not give Iran whatever it wants in the nuclear negotiations.
On the other hand, we are concerned about the blatant leaks and media reports and credit fights between the Mossad, the IDF and the political echelon. And we cannot but ask: How does all this benefit Israel?
In the past, classified operations were kept under wraps, allowing Israel to operate with impunity and carry out successful missions without claiming responsibility for them.
Dramatic strikes that “according to foreign reports” were carried out by Israel against targets such as Syria’s nuclear facility in 2007 are a good example for when officials kept silent and there were no deliberate leaks to the media.
Another example is the series of Stuxnet attacks uncovered more than a decade ago that caused substantial damage to Iran’s nuclear program. While neither Israel nor the US openly admitted responsibility, the cyber-weapon behind Stuxnet was “widely understood” to have been built jointly by both countries in a collaborative effort known as the “Olympic Games.”
In all these examples, the people who needed to know – Israel’s enemies – knew, but Israeli officials stayed mum to give the country the ability to maneuver and follow a policy of deliberate ambiguity.
Leaking reports of a cyberattack – or any other clandestine operations, for that matter – on the same day as the incidents themselves is a clear break with tradition. And if politicians talk, then it’s also difficult to separate the attack from the political mess the country is currently facing.
Of course, there is also the danger of Israel’s enemies not only pointing a finger at the Jewish state, but also threatening and carrying out retaliatory action. Iran’s Nournews website said the person who caused the electricity outage had been identified, and “necessary measures” were being taken.Israeli officials may have gone too far this time in saying too much, too soon. We urge them to reinstate the dictum made famous by The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: “When you have to shoot... shoot! Don’t talk.”