Swiss and Austrian investigators have launched probes into alleged spying in hotels hosting delicate Iranian nuclear talks, the authorities in both countries said Thursday, as Israel denied its secret services were involved..
The Swiss attorney general’s office confirmed it had launched an investigation on May 6 following a report from the Swiss intelligence agency. The office conducted a raid six days later, seizing computer equipment in which unspecified information technology material was seized, due to “suspicion of illegal intelligence services operating in Switzerland.”
It did not specify if hotels were targeted in the probe.
“The aim of this raid was on one hand to gather evidence and to on the other verify if information systems had been infected by malware,” the attorney general’s office said in an email.
The revelation comes in a countdown to a June 30 deadline for a historic agreement between Iran and world powers on curtailing Tehran’s nuclear program in return for relief from punishing sanctions.
Israel has lobbied against the deal as it stands, but denied spying on the talks. On Thursday, deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely told Army Radio there was “no basis” to the reports of Israel’s involvement.
“What is much more important is that we prevent a bad agreement, otherwise at the end of the day we’ll find ourselves with an Iranian nuclear umbrella,” she said.
Austria — which has also hosted numerous rounds of the nuclear talks — said Thursday it was also investigating possible spying at meeting venues there.
“Investigations are ongoing” regarding the Palais Coburg hotel, the location of many rounds of the talks including discussions this week, interior ministry spokesman Karl-Heinz Grundboeck told AFP.
Recent talks in Geneva held at the luxury Intercontinental Hotel failed to bridge differences between Washington and Tehran, especially over the crucial issue of inspections of military sites.
The talks between Iran and the world powers have been held in several Swiss hotels: the Palais Wilson and Intercontinental in Geneva, the Beau Rivage in Lausanne and the Royal Plaza in Montreux.
Thursday’s announcement came after Russian-based security firm Kaspersky said Wednesday the malware dubbed Duqu, which is a sophisticated spy tool that was believed to have been eradicated in 2012, appeared to have been used to spy on nuclear negotiations with Iran.
The virus allows the hacker to eavesdrop on conversations and steal electronic files, and could also enable the hacker to operate two-way microphones in hotel elevators, computers and alarm systems, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The Journal also quoted “current and former US officials and many cybersecurity experts (as believing that) Duqu was designed to carry out Israel’s most sensitive intelligence-collection operations.”
Kaspersky never implicates Israel by name in its report. However, it does conclude the threat came from the same source as the original Duqu virus, and says it was likely carried out by a nation-state.
In an interview with Israel Radio on Wednesday, Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan flatly rejected the allegations, calling them “nonsense,” and assured the interviewer that Israel had other ways of gathering intelligence and didn’t need to resort to hacking.