On 22 June 2019, it was confirmed that President Donald Trump approved an offensive cyber strike that disabled Iranian computer systems used to control national rocket and missile launchers. The news of Thursday’s cyber attack broke as the U.S. President backed away from conventional military air strikes in response to the downing of a U.S. surveillance drone allegedly conducted by Iran. The operation did not involve loss of life or civilian casualties. The online attacks, which had been planned for several weeks, were ultimately meant to be a direct response to both the tanker attacks this month and the downing of an American drone this week. Multiple computer systems were targeted, according to people briefed on the operations, including those believed to have been used by an Iranian intelligence group that helped plan the tanker attacks.
The White House has not yet released any official justification for the cyber attacks. Pentagon spokesperson, Elissa Smith noted, “As a matter of policy and for operational security, we do not discuss cyberspace operations, intelligence or planning”. U.S. Cyber Security and Infrastructure Security Agency Director Christopher C Krebs said the agency has been working with the intelligence community and cyber security partners to monitor Iranian cyber activity and ensure the U.S. and its allies are safe. Krebs explained: “What might start as an account compromise, where you think you might just lose data, can quickly become a situation where you’ve lost your whole network”. The National Security Agency (NSA) would not discuss Iranian cyber actions specifically, but said in a statement to the A.P. on Friday that “there have been serious issues with malicious Iranian cyber actions in the past . . . 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 cyber attacks represent the first official show of force against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, since ‘Cyber Command’ was elevated to a full combatant command in May. The digital strike is seen by commentators as an example of what U.S. national security advisor John Bolton meant when he suggested the U.S. is prepared to step up activity in new and far reaching sectors, noting ”We’re now opening the aperture, broadening the areas we’re prepared to act in”. Tensions between the two nations have remained heightened since 2018. Since May 2018, the Trump administration has repeatedly sought to undermine the Iranian government on an international stage. Evidence of this can be documented in Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, dismantling the signature foreign policy achievement of President Barack Obama. In April 2019, President Trump announced that he was designating a powerful arm of the Iranian military, its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, as a foreign terrorist organization. This was the first time the U.S. had declared a part of another nation’s army as an official threat. The designation imposed wide-ranging economic and travel sanctions on the group, which carried out operations across the Middle East, including the military training of Arab Shiite militias. On 5 May 2019, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton announced that the United States was sending an aircraft carrier strike group and Air Force bombers to the Middle East because of “troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” related to Iran. In the following week, the U.S. President announced a further 1500 U.S. troops would be sent to the Middle East – in support of forces already present within the region.
The effect of Thursday’s cyber attack is almost certain to be temporary. Computer networks taken offline can, with work, be restored to regular operations. Such attacks are most effective when done in coordination with other actions, and at best they will set back — but not eliminate — an adversary’s military abilities. The Iranian intelligence operatives will be able to restore their computer systems, just as the Internet Research Agency restored its network after the midterm election operation. Whilst this method of offensive behaviour remains relatively peaceful, the anticipated temporality of such attacks may mean more conventional means are utilized in the future. In order to dampen tensions between the United States, Iran and those nations allied with each, multilateral cooperation is essential. The danger of escalated tensions, and the possibility of war must prove significant enough for all nations to enter into cooperative discussions.