Amidst increasing tensions, the U.S. military on Thursday, launched cyber attacks against Iranian control systems and spy networks. The Wall Street Journal reports that the attacks were carried out by the U.S. Cyber Command and U.S. Central Command on computers that had been selected months ago as a contingency plan. The attack disabled the computer systems controlling Iran’s rocket and missile launchers. They were intended as a response to Iran’s shooting down of a U.S. surveillance drone as well as two mine attacks on oil tankers the Trump administration has publicly blamed on Iran.
In a statement to the Associated Press on the day after the attack, the National Security Agency released a statement saying: “In these times of heightened tensions, it is appropriate for everyone to be alert to signs of Iranian aggression in cyberspace and ensure appropriate defences are in place.” The U.S. has previously ordered a military response to the drone incident, but U.S. President Donald Trump called the attack off at the last minute, saying it would not be “proportionate.” Instead, he vowed to place harsh sanctions on the country once again in order to keep the country from obtaining nuclear weapons.
President Trump’s usage of “proportionate” mirrors when former president Barack Obama declared the U.S. response to the Russian hacking of the 2016 election would be “proportional.” Foreign Policy reports that both of these statements are in line with universal legal norms, which require nations to respond to attacks proportionally. However, the challenge of the emerging battlefield of cyberwarfare is a lack of clarity of what is proportional to a cyber attack. The Trump administration’s last minute withdrawal of a military response shows that the newness of cyber warfare means it is not yet tested whether a “proportional response” could mean sweeping economic sanctions or potentially deadly military action. This lack of precedent makes cyber warfare an easy avenue for dangerous escalation, as shown by the Wall Street Journal reporting that the Department of Homeland Security has detected an increase in Iranian malicious cyber activities.
This isn’t the first time the U.S. has used a cyber attack to restrain Iran’s capabilities. For instance, Al Jazeera reports that prior to negotiating the Iran Deal, the U.S. and Israel launched a cyber attack called Stuxnet which caused centrifuges in Iran’s nuclear facilities to spin at speeds that caused the machines to break. The attacks against Iran form part of the U.S.’s shift towards cyber warfare as a foreign policy tool that was laid out earlier this month by the National Security Adviser John Bolton, who told the press that the U.S. was preparing to utilize cyber responses in areas beyond just election security. Tensions between the U.S. and Iran have been heightened ever since the U.S. pulled out last year of its deal with Iran to suspend sanctions in exchange for curbing Iran’s nuclear abilities. They became especially bad in recent weeks after Al Jazeera reports that Iran shot down a U.S. surveillance drone within its airspace, which the U.S. claims was over international waters, and the attack of two oil tankers, which the U.S. has blamed on Iran.
This correspondent believes that the U.S. should be more mindful when dealing with the situation with Iran, especially through the use of cyber warfare. With little international regulation and potential disastrous effects, such as the potential to shut down entire energy grids or hack into military operations, escalation within the field of cyberwarfare poses an extremely slippery slope that could descend into full blown conflict.
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