By Victor Kotsev
Is it a coincidence that the discovery of the most powerful cyber-weapon known to humanity, nicknamed Flame, was announced a few days after a major (if inconclusive) round of nuclear talks between Iran and the West? It is harder to defend this argument if we take into account several other major incidents that have taken place since last Thursday.
A gruesome massacre in Houla in Syria that is set to inflame further the sectarian civil war, and perhaps even to tip the scales against the Syrian regime at the United Nations Security Council, is another dark coincidence. It dims by far the damning report on the Iranian nuclear program that the International Atomic Energy Agency published on Friday, a day after the talks in Baghdad ended. In all, a very remarkable four-day period.
The suspiciously-timed publication of reports by international organizations, as well as leaks related to the negotiations to the media, was to be expected. There are plenty of states and persons with access to confidential information who are looking after their own interests and are elbowing to get the best for themselves out of the complex negotiations.
Israel, which is widely thought to be the chief spoiler, immediately comes to mind, but the intention behind such leaks is not necessarily to derail the talks; even Russia, which is expected to try hard to make the negotiations succeed, would not be beyond suspicion.
However, the developments of the past days are not mere leaks and publications. If this is indeed a war of messages, some of these are written in shocking amounts of blood, and there could hardly be a clearer sign that the gloves are off in the Middle East.
We could try to explain the massacre that took place in Houla (an area near the city of Hama in Syria, a site of a brutal massacre in 1982 and a focal point of clashes in the current crisis) on Friday night as the work of a pro-regime mob that did not necessarily receive orders from high up in the regime.
The German weekly Der Spiegel, for example, emphasized this interpretation, by comparing the tragedy in which at least 109 villagers, including 32 children under the age of 10, died to the Mi Lai massacre perpetrated by a group of American soldiers during the Vietnam war. 
If unintended, the tragedy was a massive blunder for the Syrian regime; the moment is so grave that even a minor misstep could cost Syrian President Bashar al-Assad his rule. However, the visibility of the massacre – within hours, pictures of the bodies surfaced, and within days the UN observers in Syria were able to file reports – suggests another story.
What is odd is that there was no cover-up. Many reports from the past 15 months or so since the start of the unrests describe previous atrocities perpetrated by regime troops; according to these reports, bodies disappeared, sites were bulldozed, and witnesses were silenced in various ways.
Not so in Houla. Whether or not the Syrian government ordered the execution of the civilians, it apparently wanted the world to know about it. Its own story about the army being attacked by Islamic terrorists is fairly unconvincing given the available evidence.
There is a possibility that the mass murder will finally lead to a more aggressive action against Syria at the UN Security Council, which is scheduled to discuss the matter on Wednesday. Even Russia, which had so far resisted blaming the Syrian regime exclusively for the violence, condemned Assad.
“The government bears the main responsibility for what is going on,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, quoted by the Associated Press. “Any government in any country bears responsibility for the security of its citizens.”
In a foreboding move, 10 European countries plus the United States expelled the top Syrian diplomats there in protest. According to media reports, the West is doing its best to push the Syrian opposition to unite ahead of a new diplomatic initiative against Assad.
Both Russian and American officials have suggested Yemen, whose president Ali Abdullah Saleh left earlier this year under a deal that gave him immunity and transferred power to his deputy, as a possible model for a resolution of the Syrian crisis.
Most recently, this scenario reportedly came up in a conversation between US President Barack Obama and Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev during the Group of 8 meeting in Chicago two weeks ago.
This model has serious flaws, but has kept coming up as one of very few available options. The situation in Syria is different from that in Yemen in many ways; besides, the notion that the Yemen model has succeeded was seriously challenged recently by spiraling violence there. A week ago, a suicide attack killed about 100 and injured hundreds more in the capital San’aa.
On the other hand, it still seems unrealistic that a foreign intervention will take place in Syria in the very near future, given the lack of appetite for such action in the West and the formidable military machine which the Syrian regime commands (including sophisticated air defenses and chemical weapons). This is what Assad is seemingly counting on in braving the outcry; whether his calculations will prove correct remains to be seen.
Just as importantly, the massacre and the ensuing diplomatic scandal threaten to interfere also with the ongoing nuclear talks between Iran and the West within the framework of P5+1 (the US, Britain, France, Russia, China plus Germany). During the talks last week, Iran reportedly tried hard to insert Syria into the conversation; most analysts are unanimous that the Iranian regime sees the developments in its closest Arab ally a key part in its regional strategy, as intricately linked to the progress of its nuclear program.
In this context, speculation has long existed that Iran might dump Assad if the latter’s fortunes became completely untenable, and perhaps seek to replace him with somebody else from his own regime. Incidentally, this sounds very much like the Yemen model, and it is not inconceivable that it was mentioned, if not during the nuclear discussions last week, at least during the back-channel talks that preceded them.
While this is still in the realm of speculation, it could be that Assad’s actions were a message to his patrons in Tehran as much as a brazen act of defiance toward the West. By igniting a full-blown sectarian civil war, moreover, he would burn all bridges between the different communities inside the country and inextricably tie his personal fortunes to those of his regime and his sect. He would bury the Yemen model once and for all.
If this was Assad’s message to Tehran, there are indications it was received. According to British daily The Guardian, a top Iranian general admitted over the weekend that Iranian forces operated in Syria on the side of the regime.  We could interpret this as a strong statement of support for Assad, designed to reassure him, but also to remind him of his dependence on Tehran.
Right on the heels of this intrigue came the announcement by Russian anti-virus firm Kaspersky that it had discovered a new “malicious program” whose “complexity and functionality … exceed those of all other cyber-menaces known to date.” The New York Times reported on Tuesday that the virus called Flame had infected the computers of high-ranking Iranian officials, that it was apparently designed to collect sensitive data, and that it had been created any time between two and five years ago.
Most fingers point to Israel, and even the Israeli deputy prime minister hinted in an interview that this may be the case. An Israeli security firm told the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, “The Flame computer virus not only stole large quantities of information from various Iranian government agencies, but apparently even disrupted its oil exports by shutting down oil terminals …” 
It is hard to say exactly what the significance of the discovery is, but experts agree it is likely enormous.
Flame is about 20 times larger than its apparent predecessor, Stuxnet, which was discovered two years ago and was dubbed the first cyber-weapon in human history. It reportedly uses a similar encryption algorithm to hide parts of its code, and we can expect it to take at least as long to decode it and to understand what exactly it does. In the case of Stuxnet, it took months.
Still, a successful new cyber attack on the Iranian nuclear program could push the time frame for an Israeli or American attack on the Islamic Republic further into the future.
We can expect more revelations and intrigues in the next weeks; as it turned out, the IAEA report last week, which claimed that Iran had increased its stocks of low-enriched uranium significantly, was just the preamble. Reports and rumors circulate about issues as diverse as Iranian penetration of media in Afghanistan, Iranian involvement in the smuggling of Iraqi oil, and the mystery unreported deaths of high-ranking Iranian military officials.
Iran’s enemies have weaknesses of their own, while third-party actors have their own interests to stir the proverbial pot. Russia comes to mind: it may well try to extract concessions on the controversial North Atlantic Treaty Organization anti-missile shield in Europe (among other issues) from the US in exchange as part of the mediation process. Even a legitimate pretext for this can be found. After all, the claim goes that the shield is designed to counter the Iranian missile threat.
What looks like a long and nasty diplomatic process is unfolding. On the up side, the many intrigues seemingly confirm that the negotiations between Iran and its opponents are seriously underway. This means – or at least should mean, barring surprises – that a war is not immediately on the agenda.
On the other hand, the fundamental problems remain, and are only getting worse. This is true of the rifts between Iran and the West, which would be grave even without the Iranian nuclear program; it is even more true of the civil war in Syria. Given the nature of the developments, it is very hard to be optimistic for the longer term.
1. Syria’s My Lai: The Houla Massacre Marks a New Level of Violence, Der Spiegel, May 28, 2012.
2. Syrian army being aided by Iranian forces, The Guardian, May 28, 2012.
3. Flame virus had massive impact on Iran, says Israeli security firm, , Ha’aretz, May 30, 2012.
Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst.
(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved).