Iran vs. The West: Cyberwar or Media Hype?

Friday, April 27, 2012

Pierluigi Paganini

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(Translated from the original Italian)

I have read several articles which hypothesize imminent cyber attacks by an Iran cyber army against U.S. infrastructure, and this news seems to be alarming the international community.

Are we close to a military attack of Iran?

Sources of intelligence reported to Congress on Thursday said that Iran is recruiting a hacker army for attacks against critical infrastructure such as the power grid and water systems. Counter terrorism and Intelligence Subcommittee Chairman Pat Meehan, R-Pa declared:

“If Iran is willing to blow up a Washington restaurant and kill innocent Americans, we would be naive to think Iran would never conduct a cyber attack against the U.S. homeland,”

Meanwhile Ilan Berman, vice president of the hawkish American Foreign Policy Council, said:

“Over the past three years, the Iranian regime has invested heavily in both defensive and offensive capabilities in cyberspace... For the Iranian regime the conclusion drawn from Stuxnet is clear: War with the West, at least on the cyberfront, has already been joined, and the Iranian regime is mobilizing.”

The growing tension between Iran, the U.S. and Israel does not bode well, however the reports persistently circulated on the Internet don't add anything new to a scenario that has long been known.

Iran has understood how strategic a strong presence in cyber space is, and in this new battle field it has found vulnerable many of its opponents, so has decided to invest in cyber warfare.  

The Washington Times reported some issues contained in the report presented to two House Homeland Security subcommittees. Security experts are convinced that Iran is arranging a very offensive cyber army composed by different cells of hackers ready to engage in cyber attacks against Iran's enemies.

But this news has been known the security sector for some time, last year I wrote:

"The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, IRGC, seems to have built one of the largest forces of hackers on the planet. “Emperor”, “Iran Hackers Sabotage” these are the names of the main group of hackers that during the last year have conducted several operation like destroy a government database or hack into two candidates’ websites. during the 2005 presidential election. In May 2010, Ebrahim Jabbari, a provincial Revolutionary Guards commander, declared that the IRGC had the world’s second-largest cyber army at its disposal, the US intelligence is convinced of the potential of groups to the point of recognizing them as among the major cyber threats to the country. In addition to cyber warriors and mercenaries, the Iran regime also has the control of the private IT firm Ashiyane Security Group, which has coordinated several cyber-attacks from Iran. Its illustrious victims are Mossad, Mossad, defence minister Ehud BarakNASA and several websites in the Arab world."

Of course, I do not work in intelligence, but I've written before about news that today someone could use as a pretext for a military attack. I think it is the beginning of a dangerous campaign in the search for a consensus on a military attack against Iran.

On one thing there can be no doubt about, Iran is a dangerous country that has substantial financial resources from the proceeds of the oil market, and they deeply hate The West and its policies. A military option is strongly supported in the U.S. and in Israeli military echelons, and to give more time to the government in Tehran would provide the opportunity to increase their military power.

According to Frank J. Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University,

" Due the high availability of cyber weapons on black market “adversaries do not need capabilities, just intent and cash."

And Iran has both...

"Iran has a long history of demonstrated readiness to employ proxies for terrorist purposes. There is little, if any, reason to think that Iran would hesitate to engage proxies to conduct cyber strikes against perceived adversaries."

Cilluffo added.

"We know that [the Iranians] will do something if they feel cornered. We know they have a capacity, and I think it's realistic to try to assess the scope of that."

Declared Rep. Patrick Meehan, R-Pa., chairman of the subcommittee on counter terrorism and intelligence.

U.S. intelligence officials declined to comment further on Iranian cyber capabilities, though they acknowledge the threat in general terms.

All the experts agree that Iran has dramatically increased its cyberwar capabilities, despite this consideration there is no evidence that Iran will use them against the U.S. for offensive attacks. A single attack could elicit a military response by the U.S. and Israel that, despite the Iranian propaganda, is actually a dreaded prospect for the Teheran Government.

"Like most nation-states, [Iran] may want to develop a cyber capability for the same reason it would want a nuclear capability — as a shield."

Says retired Marine Gen. James Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Iranian Government is working on different fronts in my opinion, on one side it is recruiting internal hackers in the name of religious motivations, on the other hand it is acquiring knowledge from mercenary hackers coming from Eastern Europe and also from Asia. It will not be difficult for Iran to prepare its own cyber arsenal, and these cyber weapons could hit vulnerable Western critical infrastructure.

The last and most important aspect that we must consider are the alliances that Iran has with Russia and China. These countries, for several reasons, are interested in seeing that Iran maintains its strategic position in the region. The oil and conventional weapon markets are just a couple of the the motivators, and the presence of Iran is necessary to avoid the further infiltration by Western legions.

Thanks to these alliances, Iran enjoys political and technological support of two major world powers, so I think it unlikely there will be an imminent military attack on Iran. The way of diplomacy satisfies all, at this moment.

What could push the U.S. into a military operation?

An attack on American soil, whether conventional or a cyber attack, or evidence recognized by the international community that Tehran is really close to the establishment of a nuclear arsenal.

The decision to attack should be taken as soon as possible, no more of two years, acting firmly and not spreading news like those with which I began the article with, for the sole purpose of gathering consent.

The risk of a cyber attack is high, however the likelihood has not changed in recent months. A growing number of nations are taking steps in this direction by investing in cyber warfare.

Today it is Iran, which country will be tomorrow?

Cross-posted from Security Affairs

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