Left-wing politicians keep making the argument that the US is becoming a friend in the eyes of Iranian leaders, particularly after the nuclear deal and the lifting of United Nations economic sanctions, thanks to the Obama administration. But the reality on the ground is totally different from this wishful thinking.
The ruling mullahs of the Islamic Republic are complementing their physical attacks against America by increasing, at an unprecedented level, their targeting of major banking and financial systems of the United States. They are emboldened and fear no repercussions.
Nevertheless, Iran’s rapid advancement and investment in its cyber welfare capabilities does not seem to raise any concern in the administration.
The speedy advancement of Iran’s cyber program is crucial, as it only began a few years ago. The Islamic Republic began heavily investing in its social media, Internet and cyber welfare capabilities after the protests that erupted in the 2009 contested election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iranian leaders became cognizant of the significance of social media in galvanizing people and advancing political interests.
Outlets such as Halal Internet, national Internet, mehr (used instead of Youtube), and surveillance programs were increased. Reportedly, Iran obtained advanced surveillance software to monitor the population, mainly from China. The Islamic Republic invested more than $1 billion in cyber infrastructure and technology, as well as recruiting more than 100,000 personnel.
Soon after, in 2012, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ordered the establishment of the Supreme Council on Cyberspace in order to form cyber policies. This council became an indispensable pillar of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and Iran’s foreign and domestic policies.
From the outset, Iran’s cyber program was designed to be offensive and proactive in nature.
Iranian leaders are aware that they would not be successful when it comes to military confrontation with some powerful regional and international nation-states, such as Israel and the US. The alternative to a physical war is a virtual one where it can inflict significant damages on the foreign citizens, and in which it is almost impossible to hold Iranian leaders accountable. As Abdollah Araqi, deputy commander of ground forces in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), pointed out, according to the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA), “We have armed ourselves with new tools, because a cyber war is more dangerous than a physical war.”
A few years after initiation, Iran possessed the world’s fourth biggest cyber army, according to an official of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Even major Israeli think tanks acknowledged Iran as a major cyber power and warned about its prospects. The Israeli-based Institute for National Security Studies stated, “IRGC clearly makes the country one of the best and most advanced nation when it comes to cyberwarfare. In a case of escalation between Iran and the West, Iran will likely aim to launch a cyber attack against critical infrastructures in the United States and its allies, including energy infrastructure, financial institutions, transportation systems, and other.”
In 2013, the US banking systems were attacked on an unprecedented level. The online banking sites of institutions such as Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, and Citigroup were affected. US intelligence officials stated that the level of sophistication pointed to the Iranian government.
In addition, the US intelligence pointed out that the Islamic Republic was behind the “Shamoon” virus, which targeted computers of the Aramco oil corporation.
And more recently, last week, after pressure from many companies, the Justice Department indicted seven Iranian citizens for distributed denial of service (“DDoS”) attacks against 46 companies, mainly in the banking and financial sector.
Iran also began exporting its cyber capabilities to its extremist proxies and allies such as Bashar Al Assad in order to suppress the opposition and popular uprising.
Iran’s cyber warfare capabilities are advancing at a pace that needs to be addressed adequately by regional and global powers.
From Khamenei’s perspective, the future of Iran’s cyber program is a matter of protecting and advancing Sharia law, as well as being a matter of national security. The ayatollah can accomplish several objectives by advancing Iran’s cyber welfare capabilities.
First of all, domestically speaking, IRGC leaders can more easily control the opposition and dissidents. Secondly, as an offensive tool, Iran can advance its ideological, geopolitical, and strategic ambitions by sending a strong message to other nations about their vulnerabilities vis-a-vis Iran. Tehran can also inflict physical and financial damage on other major state institutions and infrastructures. Finally, Iran needs the advanced cyber program in order to protect its nuclear sites.
The US needs to take Iran’s cyber attacks against American banking and financial systems seriously before it is too late. The Islamic Republic is advancing it cyber attacks in order to complement its IRGC military prowess and in order to achieve its regional, hegemonic, Islamists and ideological ambitions.