By Jonathan Davis
The Iranians are a regional military power, without question, but lack the weapons and firepower to reach out globally. So striking the U.S. homeland with conventional weapons amid increased tensions isn’t possible.
But that doesn’t mean the Islamic republic doesn’t have the capability to strike America asymmetrically.
For years, the Iranian regime has built a fairly potent cyber warfare capability that they could now deploy against American infrastructure, corporations, and even military assets.
As noted by the Brookings Institute:
In 2007, a computer virus crippled centrifuges at Iran’s uranium enrichment facility in Natanz, setting back its nuclear program by years. The Stuxnet attack — not uncovered until a few years later — taught the revolutionary regime in Tehran a valuable lesson about how effective cyber weapons can be, prompting Tehran to invest heavily in cyber capabilities of its own. The results speak for themselves: Iranian hacking groups have graduated from conventional distributed denial of service (DDoS) and domain name system (DNS) attacks to more sophisticated operations against critical infrastructure and industrial control systems.
In the wake of Qassem Soleimani’s killing last week, the question of how Iran aims to use its cyber arsenal has acquired a newfound urgency. Tehran will need to respond forcefully to Friday’s attack, as well as related recent strikes. Iran’s cyber weaponry would seem to offer a ready-made option for high-impact, low-cost retaliation, as Iran’s national security chiefs have apparently recognized.
Yet fears of a devastating Iranian cyberattack are premature. The coming days and weeks will almost certainly bring an uptick in Iranian activity, as always happens when the two countries are engaged in brinksmanship. But it would be surprising if Tehran’s promised retaliation leveraged cyber operations alone.
It’s not as if the Pentagon and operators of U.S. infrastructure aren’t prepared for this Iranian contingency.
And it needs to be said that any cyber attack by Iran would invite a massive cyber-counter attack from an extremely capable U.S. Cyber Command.
So, as Brookings notes, Iran has three options: Escalate, maintain the status quo, or de-escalation. I won’t make any prediction about which direction Iran takes, especially after last night’s missile attack, but I will say this: I don’t believe Iran wants to escalate things — not with President Trump in the White House.
Over the past year, Tehran has steadily upped its aggression against the U.S. including the downing of an American drone, tanker attacks in the Persian Gulf, and increased military activities in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
But the president’s decision to take out Qassem Soleimani was as bold as it gets and it sent an unmistakable message of strength and, importantly, deterrence to the Iranians.
A cyber-attack might give the Iranians an advantage against the U.S. simply because the capability is there. But it, too, would come with consequences. The U.S. could inflict as much damage against the Iranians using cyber weapons as it could using kinetic weapons.
And Trump has said he will no longer tolerate Iranian aggression aimed at U.S. personnel and American assets.
But if the Iranians do launch a major cyber attack against U.S. infrastructure, it could certainly be destabilizing, and not for a short period of time. The question becomes, then, are the Iranians willing to risk the massive U.S. response that would surely come?