Recently, media outlets have been reporting more and more often about U.S. preparations for attacks on Iran. They are not only referring to military threats issued by Washington against Tehran, which is trying to oppose U.S. hegemony, but also to non-lethal attacks (i.e. interference with Iranian infrastructure functionality by cyber means). In other words, the United States is open about its intentions to carry out hacker attacks against an independent government, and does not view such actions as objectionable.
This is especially surprising if we recall that only recently, the USA initiated not just a national but an international information campaign against the Russian Federation for its alleged interference in the U.S. elections. Mueller’s Special Counsel investigation later failed to corroborate these allegations.
According to The New York Times, ‘the online operation’ against Iran ‘was allowed to go forward because it was intended to be below the threshold of armed conflict’. Based on information gathered by The Washington Post, the United States staged a cyber strike against Iran in response to the downing of a U.S. Triton drone by IRGC (the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), which signaled the start of its cyber offensive operations against this nation. U.S. Central Command (with purview of activity throughout the Middle East) coordinates the execution of such attacks. For now, there have been no reports on exact effects of these cyber-strikes against Iran.
Unfortunately, the international community has also remained silent in response to criminal actions taken by Washington. Today the United States is in the process of unleashing cyber warfare against Iran, and tomorrow it could take similar actions against any nation (in the EU or another region) that dares to disobey it. Having taken advantage of this lack of outcry, the USA is currently shifting from military to cyber operations. Washington is waging information wars and carrying out cyber terrorist attacks, thereby prodding other nations to develop their cyber strike capabilities, unfortunately.
In the 21st century, rivalry among powerful nations more and more often involves the use of cyber technologies against competing nations. However, Washington does not seem to concern itself with whether cyber operations carried out by the United States and its allies actually achieve their aims. Are the risks of rising tensions substantial? As cyber strikes become more frequent and sophisticated, what conditions could result in an unintended escalation and the use of military force?
In such a climate and due to a lack of specific international legal frameworks for curbing cyber warfare, many countries, just as the United States, have begun creating their own national cyber strike forces. This could, in the nearest future, not only lead to escalations of tensions between any two states, but also threaten international security and stability. The United States Cyber Command and the British Cyber Command have both done a lot of work in this sphere, and so have their counterparts in Iran.
In the current climate, with the recent cyber attacks staged against Iran by Israel in concert with the United States and other Western nations, the leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran is currently thoroughly analyzing performance of its national security services and the army in order to take measures to improve their effectiveness. In line with its cyber security strategy, Iran has created capabilities to protect its own crucial infrastructure facilities and intelligence gathering efforts from various types of attacks by opponents (including from harm caused by viruses and worms as, for example, Stuxnet that had an adverse effect on Iran’s uranium enrichment program). Iran is working on resolving such issues by, among other means, creating its own National Information Network (NIN), i.e. the Iranian intranet.
In order to further secure its cyber space, in July 2009, the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council (SCRC) established the Committee in Charge of Determining Unauthorized Websites (affiliated with the government’s leadership). It comprises the Attorney-General; heads of national police forces, radio and television networks; the Ministers of Culture and Islamic Guidance, of Intelligence, of Information and Communications Technology, of Science, Research and Technology, etc. As a result of its work, many websites can no longer be accessed by users in Iran (i.e. they have been blocked).
At present, the Supreme Council of Cyberspace, established in March 2012, is the top government agency overseeing cyber space issues in Iran. The Iranian Cyber Army, whose members include highly qualified IT (Information Technology) experts and professional hackers, is an essential part of Iran’s cyber defense. One of the most active hacker organizations in Iran is the Ashiyane Digital Security Team, which supports the ruling government’s ideology. In May 2009, Defense Tech (a U.S. company specializing in cyber security) stated that Iran was among five countries with the most powerful cyber capabilities in the world.
Aside from the Iranian Cyber Army, a number of other, albeit less professional, organizations are also a part Iran’s cyber defense. One of them is called Basij. Its non-military branches have thousands of members, who are responsible for ‘software’ (in reality, ‘soft war’), and, particularly, for preventing any potential damage caused by Iran’s enemies.
In recent years, a substantial number of financial institutions in the United States (including Bank of America, Citigroup, etc) have suffered from cyber attacks, carried out by Iran in response to provocative actions taken by the United States. However, from the viewpoint ofAccording to American analysts, the most destructive attack occurred in August 2012 on the computers of the Saudi Arabian oil company Aramco and the Qatari gas company RasGas. U.S. analysts, the most devastating cyber strike occurred in August 2012, when the IT networks of Saudi Aramco (the Saudi Arabian Oil Company) and of RasGas (a Qatari liquefied natural gas producing company) were attacked. The attack was carried out by means of a computer virus called Shamoo, which spread through company servers and destroyed information stored in them. The Shamoon malware, which spread across the network and destroyed all the stored files, was used in the cyber operation. A group called the Cutting Sword of Justice took responsibility for the attack and claimed it was aimed at the main source of income of Saudi Arabia, which was accused of committing crimes in Syria and Bahrain. A group called the Cutting Sword of Justice claimed responsibility for this strike at the time, and made a statement that the attack targeted the ‘largest financial resource’ of Saudi Arabia, which it accused of committing crimes in Syria and Bahrain.
On reading this far from in-depth analysis of Iran’s cyber capabilities used to protect its national security and fight against ‘enemies of the Iranian regime’, one realizes that unleashing cyber warfare against this country may have very serious consequences. And considering Iranians’ ideological patriotism (their typical trait), we cannot exclude the possibility that a possible cyber conflict with this nation will morph into a “Cyber Pearl Harbor” of sorts.
It is not clear whether strategists in Washington are fully cognizant of this or not. And, recently, instead of engaging in diplomatic discussions to resolve issues plaguing U.S. bilateral ties, they have continued to brandish their weapons (including their cyber capabilities) more and more often with the aim of applying pressure on their opponents.
Vladimir Platov, an expert on the Middle East, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.