New Stuxnet Variant Allegedly Struck Iran

Stuxnet is believed to be the creation of the intelligence agencies in the US and Israel. It is an advanced toolset specifically tailored to target Siemens industrial control system equipment. More specifically, it reprogrammed the PLCs (programmable logic controller) for centrifuges in nuclear enrichment at various facilities in Iran.

Built for sabotage purposes, the malware was stealthy in its actions and made it look like the damage it caused to the centrifuges was, in fact, the result of an accidental malfunction of the equipment.

How a smooth Saudi operative charms Washington and defends ‘the indefensible’

Even as evidence mounted last week that a Saudi Arabian hit squad had murdered and dismembered his friend, Jamal Khashoggi, Washington operative Ali Shihabi took to Twitter to do what he does best: defend the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

“Leaders and governments make mistakes, sometimes horrible ones,” the suave 59-year-old wrote in a 13-part Twitter thread on Oct. 20. “At present, the Saudi government has been humbled and chastened … But one horrible murder cannot and will not be allowed to put the country further at risk.”

The reaction from many quarters was scathing.

Keep cashing those checks, Ali,” wrote Karen Attiah, who edited Khashoggi’s columns for The Washington Post. “I cannot for the life of me understand how you sleep at night.”

The global outrage over Khashoggi’s murder has forced many Washington lobbyists and public relations pros to cut ties with the Saudi government. But not Shihabi, a Saudi national who may be the country’s most effective defender in the U.S. capital. Media savvy and politically shrewd, Shihabi has relationships with prominent journalists, Trump administration officials and think tank experts throughout Washington. The Saudi ambassador left Washington earlier this month and reportedly may not return, but it matters less given that many already consider Shihabi, who is close to the Saudi leadership, to be the kingdom’s unofficial envoy.

Unlike some Arab envoys who can be culturally out of step with their host city, Shihabi — whose father was Saudi and mother Norwegian — has a gracious European demeanor, a wry sense of humor and a taste for good wine. His daughter is even an actress.

.. Shihabi can often be seen on the D.C. circuit, hitting book parties hosted by the likes of the operative-hostess Juleanna Glover and dining at spots like the Monocle and the Four Seasons with such A-list media figures as Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

.. He calls himself a provocateur, but Shihabi can be just as on-message as any official Arab envoy. He is tall and bespectacled, with a booming voice he uses with little restraint, often talking over his opponents with a wide smile as he rationalizes beheadings as a means of executions, Saudi efforts to counter Iran’s government, and even conditions for the country’s imprisoned dissidents.

.. “Prison in Saudi Arabia is quite benign,” Shihabi once said during a television appearance with Khashoggi. “They are nothing like the dungeons of the Middle East.” (He later clarified he meant jails for political prisoners, but regretted the way he’d articulated the comment.)

.. Despite such head-scratchers, Shihabi has developed a sterling reputation among Washington foreign policy elites who consider him a loyal — but not completely doctrinaire — interlocutor between Washington and Riyadh.

.. “I would describe him as one of the sharpest people I’ve met in this town,” said Walter Cutler, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. “I have high regard for him personally.”

“I’ve had conversations with him where I’ve said, ‘The Saudi government just did X. I don’t get it. It doesn’t strike me as smart,’” said Elliott Abrams, a former official in the George W. Bush administration. “He’d say, ‘I don’t think so either. I’m trying to get it reversed.’”

.. Shihabi’s skills are being tested as never before. He’s defending a Saudi version of events — that Khashoggi died after a fistfight with Saudi officials waiting for him in the consulate – that has been widely dismissed.

.. “He’s trying to defend the indefensible, and that never works out very well,” a former Obama administration official said on condition of anonymity. “The fact of the matter is that the story that the Saudis have concocted is so blatantly false that he damages his own standing, his own reputation, by trying to argue in defense of it.”

Further complicating matters is the fact that Shihabi had known Khashoggi for many years. The pair had even appeared on TV together to debate Saudi policy.

.. Shihabi calls himself a foreign policy “realist,” or “certainly not an idealist.” He is skeptical that liberal democracy can take root in his homeland anytime soon and prizes the idea of stability in Saudi Arabia.

.. “Do I worry about criticism going too far?” he told POLITICO. “Sure. Because I want to maintain access.”

Shihabi’s primary organ of influence in Washington is the Arabia Foundation, which he established in early 2017. He says he launched the organization after coming to believe that the Saudi monarchy was getting poor results for the millions it spent on lobbying and public relations in Washington.

.. Shihabi’s background is unusually varied for a Saudi citizen: His late father, Samir Shihabi, was a Jerusalem-born Saudi diplomat

.. He first wrote a novel, “Arabian War Games,” that explored what would happen if Iran invaded Saudi Arabia just as Israel tries to expel its Israeli-Arab minority into Jordan.

.. While Saudi Arabia is known for promoting an austere form of Islam that many experts say breeds terrorism, Shihabi comes across as relatively open-minded and liberal – up to a point.

.. “Ali’s been very clear that the death of Jamal is wrong, is horrible, is indefensible,” said Adam Ereli, a former U.S. ambassador to Bahrain who serves on the advisory board of the Arabia Foundation.

But at the same time, the death of a journalist is what it is. It’s not the end of the world,” he added. “What are we supposed to do, stop doing everything? And just put the Middle East on hold while we vent our rage and punish everybody?”

The US-Saudi Relationship After Khashoggi

The US-Saudi relationship has been a rocky one, and its setbacks and scandals have mostly played out away from the public eye. This time, too, common interests and mutual dependence will almost certainly prevail over the desire to hold the Saudis to the standards expected of other close US allies.

.. But significant damage to bilateral ties, let alone a diplomatic rupture, is not in the cards, even if all the evidence points to a state-sanctioned assassination. Saudi Arabia is simply too crucial to US interests to allow the death of one man to affect the relationship. And with new allies working with old lobbyists to stem the damage, it is unlikely that the episode will lead to anything more than a lovers’ quarrel.
.. Saudi Arabia’s special role in American foreign policy is a lesson that US presidents learn only with experience. When Bill Clinton assumed the presidency, his advisers were bent on distancing the new administration from George H.W. Bush’s policies. Among the changes sought by Clinton’s national security adviser, Anthony Lake, was an end to the unfettered White House access that Saudi Arabian Ambassador Bandar bin Sultan enjoyed during the Reagan and Bush presidencies. Bandar was to be treated like any other ambassador.
.. when Clinton needed a quote from the Koran to go alongside those from the Old and New Testament for a ceremony marking an Israeli-Palestinian accord, he turned to the Saudi ambassador.
.. Before Donald Trump assumed office, he frequently bashed the Saudis and threatened to cease oil purchases from the Kingdom, grouping them with freeloaders who had taken advantage of America. But after the Saudis feted him with sword dances and bestowed on him the highest civilian award when he visited the Kingdom on his first trip abroad as US president, he changed his tune.
.. Even the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, could not damage the relationship. Though al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, himself a Saudi national, recruited 15 of the 19 hijackers from the Kingdom, senior Saudi officials dismissed the implications. In a November 2002 interview, the Saudi interior minister simply deemed it “impossible,” before attempting to redirect blame by accusing Jews of “exploiting” the attacks and accusing the Israeli intelligence services of having relationships with terrorist organizations.
.. Bandar provided key insights and advice as President George W. Bush planned the 2003 Iraq invasion.

.. But Saudi Arabia wears too many hats for America to abandon it easily. Though the US no longer needs Saudi oil, thanks to its shale reserves,

  • it does need the Kingdom to regulate production and thereby stabilize markets.
  • American defense contractors are dependent on the billions the Kingdom spends on military hardware.
  • Intelligence cooperation is crucial to ferreting out jihadists and thwarting their plots. But, most important,
  • Saudi Arabia is the leading Arab bulwark against Iranian expansionism. The Kingdom has supported proxies in Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen to contain Iran’s machinations. Any steps to hold the Saudis responsible for Khashoggi’s death would force the US to assume responsibilities it is far more comfortable outsourcing.

.. When the United Kingdom, the region’s colonial master and protector, decided that it could no longer afford such financial burdens, US leaders ruled out taking its place. Policymakers were too focused on Vietnam to contemplate action in another theater. Instead, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger conceived a policy whereby Iran and Saudi Arabia, backed by unlimited US military hardware, would police the Gulf. While Iran stopped playing its role following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Saudis still do.

.. It is not only defense contractors who are going to bat for the Saudis. Before Khashoggi became Washington’s topic du jour, the Saudis paid about ten lobbying firms no less than $759,000 a month to sing their praises in America’s halls of power.

.. Former Saudi bashers such as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s confidant Dore Gold now meet with the Kingdom’s officials. Following the 2013 military coup that toppled Egypt’s democratically elected government, Israeli leaders urged US officials to embrace the generals. They are likely to do the same today if US anti-Saudi sentiment imperils their Iran strategy.

.. in the wake of Khashoggi’s disappearance, common interests and mutual dependence will almost certainly prevail over the desire to hold the Saudis to the standards expected of other close US allies.