Cyberwarfare brings new element to Israel-Iran confrontation
In one of his last public appearances as prime minister, outgoing Israeli Premier Naftali Bennett was unequivocal in his warning to Tehran — immediately after Iran’s state-owned Khuzestan Steel Co. found itself the victim of a major cyberattack — that “if you mess with Israel, you will pay a price.”
Messing with Israel was a reference to Iranian hackers last month conducting a spear phishing operation aimed at taking over the email accounts of former politicians and diplomats. On another occasion, a suspected Iranian cyberattack triggered public sirens in various Israeli cities. Such digital hostilities between these two nemeses have been accelerating in recent years and, according to Bennett, “It is inevitable that cyber is going to become one, if not the most, prominent dimension of future warfare.”
There is something paradoxical in going public and taking credit for cyberattacks, mainly because plausible deniability is one of the inherent advantages of such warfare. It allows the attacker to inflict the desired damage and avoid leaving obvious traces that would force the victim to retaliate, while establishing a level of deterrence by demonstrating the attacker’s capability to harm their opponent.
Cyberattacks are by their very nature unsettling and, even when they leave little doubt about who has carried them out, they leave enough uncertainty about the identity of the attacker, about where any follow-up attack might take place and about how to defend against different variants of it to rattle those on the receiving end.
Nevertheless, in recent years both Israel and to some extent Iran have been discarding the shroud of secrecy over their attacks on the high-level strategic assets of their opponent — and not only in the cyber sphere, but also in other areas of confrontation. While Israel’s aim is to establish military superiority and with it deterrence, its actions could easily prompt the regime in Tehran to step up a gear by retaliating in different areas of confrontation, with Israel being forced to retaliate in turn.
Iran and Israel are squaring up to each other in different parts of the Middle East while diversifying their methods of damaging each other’s interests. Cyberwarfare is a more recent tier of this multidimensional confrontation and one that might prove to escalate quickly, with devastating consequences. The more that cyberspace becomes a domain where many of our activities take place, the more it makes vulnerable those who operate in it, which is basically everyone and everything, as it is filled with data that is essential to our very functioning and existence as nations and societies.
A great deal of essential infrastructure, such as defense systems, transport, healthcare, businesses, financial services, education and power plants, uses cyberspace for data storage and communication. Hence, because of the crucial part cyberspace plays in our daily lives — and at the same time due to its vulnerability to attacks — it makes it indispensable to invest in data protection from attacks by hackers, especially if orchestrated by states. Otherwise, there is the danger of havoc being wreaked on public, civilian and private infrastructures that might end in severe disruption of essential services and even loss of life.
Shifting their conflict to cyberspace is tempting, not least because it is perceived as being low cost and with low risk of loss of life for the attacker.
In the 21st century, such a scenario is no longer the stuff of science fiction, but a daily occurrence worldwide. For two countries with a long history of deep animosity such as Israel and Iran, especially as they possess considerable technological capabilities, shifting their conflict to cyberspace is tempting, not least because it is perceived as being low cost and with low risk of loss of life for the attacker.
Late last month, Israel’s cybersecurity chief Gaby Portnoy admitted that Iran — along with its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah and Palestinian militant organization Hamas — is Israel’s principal rival in the sphere of cyberwarfare, in terms of the number of attacks, the quality of the targets and the attempts at publicizing these actions, which make their escalation dangerously inevitable.
Portnoy added that Israel needs an Iron Dome-like system of cyber defense, drawing a parallel with the threat of incoming missiles. Few countries are as technologically savvy as Israel and, when it comes to cyberwarfare, it is at the forefront of every aspect. Israel is a cybersecurity powerhouse, not only by regional standards but globally too, accounting for a third of worldwide cybersecurity “unicorns” and 41 percent of investment in the sector.
This gives Israel an advantage both in offensive and defensive terms, but Tehran is also improving its cyber capabilities and, in the last two years, has exposed vulnerabilities, especially in the Israeli private sector, which have enabled it to interrupt, even if for only a short time, economic activities and some public utilities, as well as to collect the private information of Israeli citizens.
Israel has thus far had the upper hand and is using cyberspace to harm Iran’s military capabilities, slow down its nuclear program, make it feel insecure and also win the cognitive battle. The more both countries come to rely on advanced technology, the more they become exposed to mutual attacks and are likely to engage in an escalating cyberwar that could have devastating consequences for their infrastructure and cause fatalities. It would also enhance the perception, especially among Israelis, that their opponent is an existential threat.
Consequently, we can expect a type of hybrid warfare between Israel and Iran, in which cyberspace plays an increasingly important role without replacing more conventional methods. Much more attention and resources will be devoted to cyberattacks and building resilience against them. In this relatively new form of warfare, although it might appear less gruesome than traditional versions, the consequences could be just as horrific and, depending on what systems are attacked, more destructive.
Cyberwarfare will not alter the underlying causes of the enmity between Israel and Iran, but it hands them another tool to compete with one another. The trajectory as it emerges is of an intensification of resorting to its use and, with political systems that are inherently unstable, it adds another layer of threat not only to Iran and Israel, but also to the region.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg