Updated: Dec 18, 2019
The Netherlands has played a crucial role in sabotaging Iran's nuclear program, possibly aimed at making a nuclear weapon, according to de Volkskrant research. An AIVD agent infiltrated the atomic complex at Natanz and spread a devastating digital virus.
It has been a mystery for years: what exactly happened in 2007 in the underground and heavily protected Iranian nuclear complex in Natanz.
It is known that the Iranian nuclear program was sabotaged, that the ultra-centrifuges, needed to enrich the precious uranium, broke themselves and that the Iranian nuclear program was delayed for years.
Unclear is how exactly that could happen. In 2010 researchers on computers worldwide discovered an ingenious sabotage virus that could manipulate the control of the Iranian centrifuges.
After investigation it became clear that this new weapon of war must have hit Iran, but nobody claimed responsibility. Yet in the months and years thereafter it would become clear that this digital assault weapon had to come from the American and Israeli secret services. It gets the name Stuxnet.
But one question has always remained unanswered: “How could this computer virus enter the hermetically sealed nuclear complex in Iran? A complex that had no internet connections with the outside world and where in the deepest secret work was done on Iran's nuclear program, with the possible aim of making its own atomic bomb.
Until now. Four intelligence sources confirm to Dutch newspaper 'De Volkskrant' that it was the Dutch intelligence service (AIVD) that helped the Americans and Israelis to take the final, crucial hurdle: An AIVD agent was able to infiltrate the Natanz complex. An operation that took years.
It is late 2004 when a request arrives at the AIVD head office in the Dutch city of Leidschendam. Requests of this kind go through official channels, via "liaisons" at embassies: Contacts of foreign services in The Hague.
The CIA and Mossad liaison have a question: Can the Dutch perhaps help with a factory south of Tehran? Or, as secret services say, can the AIVD "generate" access to Iran's nuclear complex in Natanz?
It is no surprise that the Americans and Israelis ended up in Leidschendam. The AIVD may be a relatively small service, but the Dutch play a significant role internationally. AIVDs are given the space to act according to their own insight and are praised by fellow services for their inventiveness. The Dutch have the advantage that they can operate a little more under the radar. Americans and Israelis stand out, especially in Iran.
The AIVD also has a history with nuclear intelligence. This is mainly due to the Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Khan. He qualified in nuclear physics in the Netherlands in the 1970s and worked for years at a research laboratory in Amsterdam.
Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Khan
Khan settled in the Netherlands with his South African wife, had Dutch friends and spoke the language well. He also sometimes visited the uranium enrichment plant of the British-German-Dutch consortium UCN in Almelo, where the ultra-centrifuge method is used.
This method is unique, other countries do not know the process. It is therefore forbidden to export the technology.
In 1975 Khan suddenly did not return from a visit to Pakistan. Three years later, Pakistan appears capable of making the atomic bomb. Khan later also sold his atomic knowledge to North Korea, Libya and Iran.
The half Dutchman had turned against the West - the Dutch secret services were puzzled as to why Khan had taken this step.
Since then, the AIVD has been keeping a close eye on Khan and its worldwide network. People working at supply companies inform the AIVD when an order is placed that can be linked to a nuclear program.
The Dutch service also discovered the potential of the internet in the late nineties: In the year 2000, employees succeeded in getting into the mail systems of the Iranian defense apparatus from Leidschendam. As a result, various Western services, including the AIVD, know that Iran is working on a secret nuclear project in Natanz.
An incident in September 2003 set in motion a number of things. The cargo vessel 'BBC China' is on its way from Dubai to Libya with a secret cargo. The AIVD monitors the ship and warns the British secret service. The 'BBC China' is led to a port in southern Italy with an excuse. There the British and Americans discover thousands of components for ultra-centrifuges. The same technique used in Almelo that was stolen by Khan and given to Libya and Iran, among others.
The Americans wanted to seize the ultra-centrifuges. This was met with objections from the Netherlands, sources say. The science of this uranium enrichment process may not be exported. Not even to ally United States.
The Netherlands, on the other hand, had no people on the spot and that took its retribution: The British did not share the Dutch worries, so CIA employees could take the ultra-centrifuges to the United States. Experts there study how they work to gain knowledge about the functioning of the ultra-centrifuges and the progress of the Iranian nuclear program. Iran uses the same kind of ultra-centrifuges.
While the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is closely following the situation in Natanz, the AIVD, following the American-Israeli request, has sent someone to Iran with a mission: Entering the underground complex.
The AIVD has set two tracks: Two fake companies with Iranian employees who have to come close to Natanz. Setting up such an operation takes years due to the recruitment of the right people. It is also important that the company has a credible profile. A history, previously executed assignments, the correct references and contacts with the Iranian government.
In 2005, the situation in Iran changed dramatically when the primordial conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president. Tehran is no longer sticking to an agreement with the atomic agency and is continuing with a program with the potential to develop a nuclear weapon.
The first centrifuges needed to enrich uranium will be installed in 2006 in the large hall in Natanz, eight meters below the ground, safely hidden from potential hostile bombing. In May 2007 Iran installed 1,700 centrifuges and Tehran wants to further increase capacity quickly: There is still room for 1,300 centrifuges.
For the US and Israel, this is the time to take action. Israel can be reached from Iran with a medium-range missile.
The Americans and Israelis have developed an advanced computer virus that should manipulate the operation of the ultra-centrifuges without the Iranian technicians knowing. For this they need to know exactly how the centrifuges work and how they are controlled.
Operation 'OLYMPIC GAMES'
And help from other countries is needed. Germany provides technical information about the operation of the Siemens systems that control the centrifuges. France also makes an, until now, unknown contribution.
In 2006, US President George W. Bush approved the secret operation. It is codenamed "Olympic Games" because of the involvement of the five countries. The five rings from the Olympic flag represent the US, Israel, Germany, France and the Netherlands. England also makes a contribution.
The task that the Dutch AIVD undertakes is to penetrate the complex in Natanz. The first company that wants to deploy the AIVD fails because of the way it was set up. "The Iranians were already suspicious," says one source.
The second company, an installation company that supplies peripheral equipment for the complex, is more successful. An Iranian engineer, recruited by the AIVD, will act as a technician.
He wants to be present if Iran starts installing new centrifuges before the summer of 2007. That threatens to fail, but due to an Israeli intervention, the man still manages to enter Natanz.
What Israel exactly did is not clear. It is possible that an Israeli source guarantees the integrity of the Dutch agent or that Israel ensures that a competing company does not get the job done.
The AIVD agent must collect information about the computer systems that control the centrifuges. The Americans and Israelis need technical information to make their virus work.
This concerns, for example, information about the speed at which the centrifuges run, the temperature, the model and the correct version. "The man had to go in several times to collect essential information for updating the virus," says an intelligence source. The Iranian engineer manages to enter the complex several times.
The Americans and Israelis are adapting the virus with the new information. And somewhere around September 2007 the engineer brings in the virus. With a contaminated USB stick, the digital tamper weapon enters the system of the nuclear complex.
The virus manipulates the functioning of the centrifuge outlet valves. They close, so no more gas can escape, but can only flow in. The pressure in the centrifuges therefore increases to unusual heights, causing them to literally break themselves.
Iranian technicians are surprised to see how their very expensive centrifuges fail: There is nothing suspicious visible on their monitors. The virus transmits incorrect information.
On the computer screens, everything seems to work as intended. It takes months for the Iranians to understand what is actually happening. But Iran's nuclear program already fell one and a half years behind.
The Dutch route "was the most important way to get the virus into Natanz," one source says. Four intelligence sources from home and abroad confirm his contribution.
After the fall of 2007, the AIVD agent no longer enters the complex for unclear reasons, but the operation was not over yet. In 2009 and 2010, the virus is updated and released on five Iranian companies that supply industrial systems to nuclear facilities. This causes Stuxnet to break adrift and infect tens of thousands of computers worldwide, until researchers discover the virus in 2010.
The complexity and ingenuity of the virus still surprise experts worldwide. Stuxnet marks the start of a new phase in the digital struggle between countries.
Former CIA director Michael Hayden says that weapons such as Stuxnet "are reminiscent of August 1945" when the Americans released the first atomic bomb over Japan.
Iran will develop digitally after Stuxnet and give hacker groups free rein. Iranian hackers flatten US banks and release a sabotage virus on a Saudi oil company.
The Dutch AIVD has always kept silent about the contribution to the launch of Stuxnet. In a response, a spokesperson said that he would not be able to respond substantively to questions about the operation.
Yet there is a subtle indication of the Dutch involvement. Sources say that when saying goodbye to GISS employees, a special gift is sometimes given: The book Counting Down to Zero Day by the American journalist Kim Zetter. It is the standard work on the covert American-Israeli attack on Iran.