West must act on Iranian regime’s cyberattacks
The Iranian regime’s employment of its newest mode of terrorism — cyberwarfare — is escalating and should not be underestimated by the international community, particularly the Western powers.
In some incidents, cyberwarfare could potentially have more severe consequences than military action due to the fact it can take control of or disrupt an entire nation’s infrastructure. It can affect public services, hospitals, transportation, the internet, municipal or governmental institutions, the energy sector, steal people’s private information and be used to take control of a country’s missiles, drones and military intelligence, command structure and communications.
The increasing dangers of this modern-day threat has been highlighted by several high-level officials. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg last year warned that cyberattacks “can be as damaging and as dangerous” as an armed attack and are “as serious as any other attack on a NATO ally.” And Dan Coats, a former director of US national intelligence, stressed in 2018: “Our adversaries, as well as the other malign actors, are using cyber and other instruments of power to shape societies and markets, international rules and institutions, and international hotspots to their advantage.”
One of the most effective ways to counter the Iranian regime’s rising cyberterrorism is for governments to send a strong message to Tehran, as Albania did last week.
As a result of the Iranian regime’s cyberattack against Albania in July, Tirana severed diplomatic relations with Tehran and ordered Iranian diplomats and embassy staff to leave the country within 24 hours. Prime Minister Edi Rama said in a video statement: “The in-depth investigation provided us with indisputable evidence that the cyberattack against our country was orchestrated and sponsored by Iran through the engagement of four groups that enacted the aggression.”
Rama added: “The government has decided with immediate effect to end diplomatic relations with Iran. This extreme response... is fully proportionate to the gravity and risk of the cyberattack that threatened to paralyze public services, erase digital systems and hack into state records, steal government intranet electronic communication and stir chaos and insecurity in the country.”
It is critical for NATO to take proportionate and similar actions against the Iranian regime as a result of one of its members coming under attack.
If NATO and its leading members remain silent, the theocratic establishment will be emboldened.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
If NATO and its leading members remain silent and continue to negotiate with the Iranian regime in order to revive the nuclear deal — appeasing the Iranian leaders and lifting sanctions on Tehran as a result — the theocratic establishment will be emboldened and empowered to target more Western governments with its cyberattacks.
The US imposing sanctions on the Iranian Intelligence Ministry on Friday was a step in the right direction, but it is far from adequate. The US and other powers must target and sanction the Iranian organizations and politicians who are in charge of the regime’s cyberwarfare program and its financing.
Instead of launching direct wars, which would put the hold on power of the ruling clerics in danger, the Iranian regime has been increasingly reliant on cyberwarfare, which is less costly and sometimes gives Tehran the advantage of remaining anonymous. After all, the regime’s modus operandi has long been to use asymmetrical warfare, such as by deploying third parties, such as its militias, proxies and terror groups, to achieve its goals.
This is not the first time the Iranian regime has launched a major cyberattack against another country. The regime has a history of launching such attacks against foreign nations and organizations that it views as rivals. For example, several intelligence agencies and officials in 2017 revealed that a group of Iranian hackers, known as Cadelle and Chafer, had carried out damaging cyberattacks against Saudi Arabia.
Iran’s cyberwarfare program is most likely run by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which will undoubtedly be the beneficiary of Iran’s new nuclear deal if it goes ahead. As the Israeli-based Institute for National Security Studies has said: “The IRGC clearly makes the country one of the best and most advanced nations when it comes to cyberwarfare. In a case of escalation between Iran and the West, Iran will likely aim to launch a cyberattack against critical infrastructures in the US and its allies, (targeting) energy infrastructure, financial institutions and transportation systems.”
In a nutshell, it is time for the international community to end the Iranian regime’s impunity when it comes to its increasing number of cyberattacks against other nations.
- Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh