JERUSALEM (AP) — A Russian-based internet security firm says a powerful spyware virus with unprecedented data-snatching capabilities has attacked computers in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Iran has not disclosed any damage done by the virus. But a unit of the Iranian communications and information technology ministry said it produced an anti-virus capable of identifying and removing the new malware, dubbed "Flame."
The virus' origin has not been identified, but suspicion immediately fell on Israel, famous for its technological innovation and its tireless campaign against Iran's suspect nuclear program.
Russian digital security provider Kaspersky Lab, which identified the virus, said in a release posted on its website late Monday that "the complexity and functionality of the newly discovered malicious program exceed those of all other cyber menaces known to date."
It said preliminary findings suggest the virus has been active since March 2010, but eluded detection because it of its "extreme complexity" and the fact that only selected computers are being targeted. Flame's primary purpose, it said, "appears to be cyber espionage, by stealing information from infected machines" and sending it to servers across the world.
According to Kaspersky, the virus collected information not only in Iran, but also in Israel and the Palestinian territories, Sudan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Iran, however, was far and away the most affected country, it said.
Israel's vice premier did little to deflect speculation about possible Israeli involvement in the cyberattack.
"Whoever sees the Iranian threat as a significant threat is likely to take various steps, including these, to hobble it," Vice Premier Moshe Yaalon told Army Radio on Tuesday. "Israel is blessed with high technology, and we boast tools that open all sorts of opportunities for us."
Israel, like the West, rejects Tehran's claims that its nuclear program is designed to produce energy, not bombs. It considers Iran to be the greatest threat to its survival and repeatedly, if obliquely, threatened to attack Iran's nuclear facilities if Tehran doesn't abandon its uranium enrichment project, a key element of bombmaking.
Iran has blamed Israel in the past for the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists and previous cyber attacks.
The first known cyber attack on the Iranian nuclear program dates back to 2010, when the Stuxnet virus disrupted controls of some nuclear centrifuges. Iran claims Stuxnet and other computer viruses have done no serious harm to Iran's nuclear or industrial facilities, and sees them as part of a campaign by Israel, the U.S. and their allies to undermine the Iranian nuclear program.
In Baghdad last week, Iranian negotiators rejected proposals by six world powers to curb Tehran's nuclear ambitions. A new round of nuclear talks is expected to take place in Moscow next month.
Yaalon told Army Radio on Tuesday that the talks in Iraq "yielded no significant achievement" except to let Iran buy time. He appeared to take a swipe at President Barack Obama by saying it might "even be in the interest of some players in the West to play for time."
Yaalon in the past expressed disappointment that the U.S. has delayed plans to expand sanctions against Iran, suggesting Washington was afraid the penalties would send oil prices soaring and hurt Obama's re-election chances.