This Article is written by Mr. Syed MuhammadAskari Naqvi, a Student of PCS at National Defense University Islamabad. He is interested in global politics, U.S-Iran ties, Middle Eastern politics, and diplomacy.
The rivalry between the U.S and Iran began in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian revolution. On various occasions, both states were entangled in conflict. In the modern age of technology, both states adopted new ways to counter each other, and cyber technology is one of them. Cyberspace is the newest battleground for the U.S.A and Iran in the four-decade cold war. The Islamic Republic of Iran was targeted multiple times by the U.S and its allies. In response to the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps and ministry of intelligence also conduct cyber operations against them.
The Iranian current regime is adopting its own cyber security software and internet technologies to protect its networks. In 2014 the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei while addressing the university students said, “They should prepare for cyberwar”, and Iran has prepared for this battle against Telaviv and Washington.
The U.S and Iran cyber security issues began in 2006. Since 2006 the United States held various cyber offensive operations against the Iranian government’s computer systems. In 2010, the United States and Israel developed the Stuxnet virus to sabotage Iran’s nuclear facility. More than 1000 centrifuges out of 5000 and 30,000 computers were damaged in these cyber-attacks.
Moreover, the Stuxnet virus also spread throughout Iran’s nuclear power plant at Natanz. However, the government of Iran denied that this was damage; in fact, the Iranian government stated that it caused no significant damage. Recently Iran Nuclear scientist Mohsin Fakhrizadeh was assassinated by a remote control machine gun that was operating through a satellite.
This research paper will help to understand the repercussions of cyberwar in the Middle Eastern region.
Factors behind the U.S-Iran Cyberwar:
Cyberwarfare is considered a part of Iran’s soft war military strategy. Being both victim and wager of cyber warfare, Iran is considered an emerging military power in this particular field. Since November 2010, “The Cyberdefense Common” of Iran has been operating under the umbrella and supervision of the “Passive Civil Defense Organization” which itself is a subdivision of the joint staff of Iranian Armed forces.
Iran is one of the most active players in the regional and International cyber arena as stated by an anonymous General of Revolutionary Guard that Iran has the 4th biggest cyber power among the world’s cyber armies. Iran is currently running two surveillance operations in cyberspace targeting more than 1000 dissidents according to a report by a cyber-security company published in 2021.
As a matter of fact that America has got two close allies in the Middle Eastern region Israel and Saudi Arabia. Interestingly both of these countries shared common enmity with Iran. Iran is factually the major threat to Israel, KSA, and America.
As a matter of fact, that succession of Iran in the cyber security arena could threaten the security of America’s two major allies in the Middle East and it will also challenge the strategic and political interest of America. The long-standing U.S-Iran rivalry is the key factor behind this animosity. The previous government of Trump was quite harsh with Iran over the issue of JCPOA and it enraged Iran again, resultantly Iran again launched a campaign against America and its allies, particularly in the cybersphere.
On the 13th of August 2020, an accord was signed between UAE and Israel named the Abraham accord. As the result of the Abraham accord, the new balance of power in the region has made Israeli influence and presence extend to the borders of Iran, further increasing the possibility of a major conflict.
The Abraham Accords which were meant to introduce stability to the region are contrarily introducing new tensions in the region. Correspondingly, Iran will increase its skepticism in its interstate relations with its Persian Gulf counterparts. Seeing both Iranian and Israeli power dynamics moving strategically closer and closer, the probability of an escalation of direct conflict consolidates. Thus, the deals that were meant to empower regional peace and stability might just ignite a major flame.
As a result of the Abraham Accord, one of the most important countries of the Middle East UAE has recognized Israel as a sovereign state.
UAE’s recognition is surely the biggest diplomatic victory of Israel. This deal neutralizes the long-standing Arab-Israel conflict. Basically, UAE opened the way for the rest of the Arab nations to normalize their relations with Israel.
UAE has been facing existential security threats from insurgent groups. UAE has also been facing cyber threats. With this Abraham deal, Israel would render cyber technology to counter cyber attacks.
Israel would also train UAE’s military to counter insurgent groups and both states would also have Navel and Intelligence collaboration. US would also provide F-35 fighter jets to UAE. In the backdrop of Abraham’s accord, it could be possible that the U.S. and Israel would back UAE in cyberspace against Iran because of the fact that Iran is a common enemy of the USA, KSA, Israel, and UAE in this region.
USA and Israel are trying to create this cyber game more tuff for Iran by signing this accord. It would be difficult for Iran to counter 4 enemies at the same time in this cyberwar.
Cyber Skirmishes between the U.S and Iran:
Since 2012 Iran’s cyberattack capabilities have been advanced. Iran conducts various cyber operations against its enemies. In 2012, wiper malware also known as Shamoon had damaged computers which delayed oil production after targeting Saudi Aramco and other energy companies in the Middle East.
U.S. government officials had straightly linked the attack to Iran (Iran’s Cyberattacks Capabilities January 2020). Furthermore, in 2020 IRGC commander General Qasem Solaimani was attacked by a U.S drone using cyber technology to locate his exact location in Iraq.
In November 2020 another Iranian significant brain of Iran’s nuclear program Mohsin Fakhrizaday was assassinated in Absurd. Iran linked this attack to the U.S-Israel nexus. Iranian authorities stated that scientist was attacked by the Israeli cyber army by using cyber technology.
They detected his pattern of mobilization and then attacked him by using an AI-based machine gun with the help of satellite technology. (Kelinman 2020) Recently, on November 24, 2021, the U.S hacked a number of Iranian websites with the message “Death to Ali Khamenei- Greetings to Rajavi”. In those websites, Justice Ministry, computer research and Islamic studies, and the center of mosque affairs were included.
Iran-Russia agreement; response to Abraham deal:
In March 2021 Russia and Iran had signed an agreement regarding cyber technology. This agreement countered Abraham’s deal in the cybersphere. Abraham’s deal enabled UAE and Israel collectively to counter cyber threats, particularly from Iran. In response, Iran has signed an agreement with Russia regarding cyber technology.
In January, Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister of Russia signed an agreement with his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif, regarding cyber security, information, and communications technology. According to this agreement, Russia and Iran will cooperate with each other in cyber security, technology transfer, combined training, and coordination at multilateral forums. The Iran cooperation with Russia highlighted in the agreement have the potential to increase Iran’s offensive designs in cyber capabilities but the agreement mostly seems defensive which is motivated by the countries who shared common enmity toward the United States and its allies in the Middle East.
One of the main motives behind this agreement is that Iran and Russia’s allies in the Middle East should have less dependence on Western technology. There are some limitations that how closely the two sides can be expected to work together. The collaboration in the cybersphere between Moscow and Tehran is likely to be focused mainly on intelligence sharing and improvising cyber defenses, rather than sharing offensive capabilities. Nonetheless, the agreement could pose four core challenges to the U.S. cyber operations in the Middle Eastern region.
First, Russia can provide assistance to Iran to establish stronger cyber defense systems. Second, the cooperation between Iran-Russia in cyber security could require Russian cyber teams to be present in Iran to go through the Iranian networks in order to collect insights and identify the U.S. malware, similar to U.S. Cyber Command’s “Hunt Forward” operations.
Acquiring and analyzing Cyber Command or National Security Agency hacking tools and techniques could help improve Russian and Iranian cyber defenses and it could foil future U.S. cyber operations against Iran and Russia, and force U.S. hackers to develop a new exploit.
Third, if Russians would be given access to Iranian defense systems, Russian hackers could be able to counter and reverse U.S. or Israeli malware that has been used against Iran. This occurred with the Stuxnet worm, which targeted Iran’s nuclear facilities in 2010 and was attributed to the United States and Israel. Since then, numerous cyber actors have developed over 22 million pieces of malware that used Stuxnet’s blueprint to target organizations around the world.
Stuxnet eventually infected thousands of networks globally, so hackers had access to a lot of samples, but an attack that did not become as widely known could still be remodeled if Russia is allowed to access Iranian networks. Fourth, technologies and techniques that Iran obtains from Russia could be provided to Iranian proxies around the Middle East, including Hezbollah and militias in Iraq and Yemen. Some of these groups have already shown sizeable hacking capabilities.
Read More: https://www.cisa.gov/uscert/iran
In January, security firm Clear Sky revealed that a Hezbollah-affiliated hacking group named Lebanese Cedar was involved in a substantial campaign that targeted telecoms and internet service providers in the US, Europe, and the Middle East. Furnishing Iranian proxies with modern Russian cyber capabilities could allow them to intimidate government agencies, businesses, and U.S. operations in the Middle East.
It could also hamper investigations into cyber operations conducted by Iranian proxies and lead to misattributing them to Russia, possibly causing unintended escalation. (The Iran-Russia Cyber Agreement and U.S. Strategy in the Middle East 2021)
It is concluded that U.S-Iran Cyberwar can create serious security concerns for the region. The US has got 3 important allies in the Middle East to counter Iran in the cyber security sphere. This tug of war between the US and Iran in cyber warfare could pose serious threats for the region as it could create a more adverse environment between the regional enemies.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are already in adverse relations with each other. In the recent past, Iran had attacked KSA oil company Aramco. This cyberwar could further create complexity in the region as Iran has been backed by Russia and China. It will also increase the flame of proxy war in the Middle East.