The Justice Department and federal prosecutors have portrayed that individuals linked to the Iranian government have attacked U.S. infrastructure, including a small dam 20 miles north of New York. Reportedly, this is not the first time that the Islamic Republic has been attempting to infiltrate the online infrastructure (from the US banking systems, New York Stock Exchange, Nasdaq, AT&T Inc., to the dam, among others) and inflict significant damages on Americans. Iranian leaders have skillfully and shrewdly found new methods to inflict significant harms on the "enemy" and its citizens, on their soil and without the physical need to utilize the Islamic Revolutionary Forces (IRGC).
The speedy advancement of Iran's cyber program is crucial, as it only began few years ago. The Islamic Republic began heavily investing on its social media, Internet and cyber welfare capabilities after the protests which 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 Cops and Iran's foreign and domestic policies.
Offensive or Defensive? Iran's Cyber Warfare and its Exportation
Iran's cyber program was designed, from the outset, 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. The alternative to a physical war is a virtual one where 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's cyber capabilities became the world's fourth biggest cyber army according to an official of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Even Israeli major think tanks acknowledged Iran as a major cyber power. The Israeli-based Institute for National Security Studies stated that "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 United States banking systems were attacked at an unprecedented level. The online banking sites of institutions such as Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase , Wells Fargo, and Citigroup were affected. US officials stated that the level of sophistication pointed to the Iranian government.
In addition, US intelligence pointed out that the Islamic Republic was behind the "Shamoon" virus which targeted computers of Saudi Arabia's Aramco oil corporation.
And more recently, last week, the Justice Department indicted seven Iranian citizens for distributed denial of service ("DDoS") attacks in against 46 companies mainly in the banking and financial sector.
Iran also began reportedly exporting its cyber capabilities to its proxies and allies such as the Syrian government in order to suppress the opposition and popular uprising.
The Islamic Republic's Objectives and Intentions
From Khamenei's perspective, the future of Iran's cyber program is a matter of national security. Iranian leaders can accomplish several objectives by advancing their 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 warn its rivals by inflicting damage on their major state institutions and infrastructures. Finally, Iran needs the advanced cyber program in order to protect its nuclear sites in case of foreign cyber attacks.
Finally, Iran's cyber warfare capabilities is advancing at a pace that needs to be addressed adequately by regional and global powers. It has shown that the Islamic Republic will not hesitate to attack rival countries, including the US, through cyber platforms. In the new age of globalization, the Islamic Republic is adapting fast to the modern cyber technology in order to complement its IRGC military prowess in order to achieve its regional hegemonic and ideological ambitions.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is an American political scientist, business advisor and the president of the International American Council on the Middle East. Harvard-educated, Rafizadeh serves on the advisory board of Harvard International Review. An American citizen, he is originally from Iran and Syria, lived most of his life in Iran and Syria till recently. He is a board member of several significant and influential international and governmental institutions, and he is native speaker of couple of languages including Arabic and Persian. He also speaks English and Dari, and can converse in French, Hebrew.
You can learn more about Dr. Rafizadeh on HERE. This post first appeared on Al Arabiya.