Nuclear watchdog fears Iran may have hacked into laptops

IAEA staff advised to seal mobile phones and laptops to avoid tampering when they leave them unattended on site visits

The United Nations nuclear watchdog is investigating whether Iranian officials hacked into computers and mobile telephones left unattended by inspectors monitoring Iran's nuclear sites, diplomats say.

The suspected security breaches could further complicate exhaustive efforts by the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to determine whether Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons capability under the guise of its civilian programme.

The agency's inspectors are understood to have reported unexplained incidents following site visits to Iranian nuclear facilities earlier this year, suggesting that unguarded mobile phones and laptops may have been tampered with, news agencies cited unnamed diplomats as saying.

One Vienna-based diplomat was quoted by Reuters as saying the suspicions, if true, would be "a dramatic and troubling indication of Iranian disdain for its obligation to co-operate with the IAEA".

Yukiya Amano, the director general of the agency, would not confirm to reporters whether the IAEA had initiated a probe, but said: "Inspections should be done without any disturbance from the country that receives inspectors."

Amid growing frustration with Iran's refusal to enter into meaningful nuclear co-operation, the European Union is preparing to expand sanctions against the country, adding about 100 companies to its embargo list, including the European Iranian Bank, which officials say has financed companies involved in Iran's nuclear programme.

The EU has urged Iran to suspend its programme in return for technology and trade, but talks have all but ground to a halt.

Iran insists that its nuclear programme is peaceful and critical to meeting its energy needs, but it has consistently denied UN inspectors the information they require to verify or disprove that claim. The UN has imposed several rounds of sanctions on Iran in a bid to force compliance.

IAEA officials make frequent trips to Iran, sometimes every other week, to inspect the country's nuclear facilities and advise the UN Security Council on whether Tehran has complied with resolutions calling for the suspension of uranium enrichment.

Diplomats say the hacking most likely took place during these visits when inspectors left their laptops and mobile phones – which are not allowed on nuclear sites – with security guards.

The agency advises its employees to place their mobile phones in closed envelopes with writing across the seal, so that they can tell if somebody has tried to open them. Laptops are supposed to be left in locked bags or sealed in the same way during site inspections, but are also sometimes left unattended in hotel rooms.

It is not clear whether the UN suspects the hackers of downloading information from the devices, or of installing some form of spyware that would allow them to monitor conversations or emails.

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