In the midst of growing tension between Iran and the U.S., the U.S. has launched a series of cyber attacks on Iran’s intelligence agency. The United States Cyber Command made a public statement this week stating that the online attacks were an effort by America’s military and intelligence community to prevent escalating tension with Iran while still applying pressure on Tehran to refrain from its ‘shadow war.’ The cyber attacks also form punitive action against the Iranian regime for downing U.S. drones and attacking oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz in the past weeks.
Ironically, the cyber campaign was carried out at the same time that President Trump called off strikes against key Iranian targets including radar, missile batteries and computer systems critical to the Iranian intelligence group and their missile launch programs. Although the operation continues to be shrouded in secrecy, the breach was intended to disable Iran’s intelligence temporarily, not unlike U.S. malware aimed at Russia’s Internet Research Agency in November during the U.S. midterm elections. In defence of the operation, director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity, Christopher Krebs, warned that Iran’s offensive strategies posed real risks to American industries and government agencies and as such “(the U.S. administration) will continue to work with our intelligence community and cybersecurity partners to monitor Iranian cyber activity, share information and take steps to keep America and our allies safe.”
First reported by Yahoo News, this “retaliatory digital strike against an Iranian spy group” mostly likely tied or composite of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, is speculated to lessen Iranian strikes against American targets for the time being. However, Trump’s administration has stated that without a re-establishment of a deterrent relationship, Iranian attacks aimed at disabling economic sanctions are likely to resume. President Trump warned Iran against such action however noted “It’s always on the table until we get this solved.”
The U.S. has used cyber attacks as a form of pressure against Iran for over a decade, paralysing Iranian nuclear centrifuges with the Stuxnet worm and developing the cyber attack plan ‘Nitro Zeus’ against Iran’s infrastructure in 2016. Determining whether recent cyber attacks against missile launch systems are effective is a difficult exercise since an accurate assessment requires Iran to attempt a fire and launch, however the less serious impacts are only temporary, with most computer networks able to be restored to regular operations within a few days.
With the Iranian government carrying out a series of malicious hackings targeting U.S. government agencies, finance, oil and gas sectors through spear-phishing emails, the U.S. counter cyber campaign is the latest chapter of the tumultuous U.S.-Iran relationship. Although President Trump’s pull-back of military strikes has given Tehran a window of opportunity to de-escalate animosity, the uncertainty and lack of cooperation between Iran and the U.S. spells poor chances for amicable communication. It is crucial that the U.S. and Iran re-establish diplomatic avenues for cooperation and refrain from offensive strategies. Although intending to prevent open conflict and deter Iran’s shadow tactics, in the absence of fortified deterrence every act of attack either actual or cyber, risks the instigation of missile offensives.