The Growing Danger of the Iranian Cyber Threat
America’s slow retreat from the Middle East has created an unstable geopolitical vacuum met by increasingly dangerous Iranian cyber capabilities. While Israel and several Arab nations are banding together against this digital onslaught, the Biden administration appears unwilling to take up the mantle of cyber leadership. Its reluctance to act is a missed opportunity on multiple fronts: The U.S. can also better protect its own networks with intelligence gained from partners on the front lines, and American strategic orchestration begets a more coherent and effective multilateral response to Tehran. Meanwhile, the administration is quickly losing its ability to maintain friendly oil markets and contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Tehran has been carrying out attacks for years. In its most destructive hack—the 2012 Shamoon attack—the regime targeted Aramco, the Saudi Arabian state-owned oil company. Iranian cyber operators deployed malware to delete troves of data from corporate servers. The attack temporarily crippled the world’s largest oil and gas exporter, leaving more than 30,000 computers unusable and causing millions of dollars in damages. But things are getting worse.
Iran’s 2011-2013 cyber campaign to disrupt the U.S. banking sector used only simplistic techniques to overwhelm networks with traffic. And, despite its impact, Shamoon was a copycat of cyberattacks targeting Iran itself. But the Islamic regime has evolved, and it is building sophisticated exploits to hack and control Israeli and U.S. drones. And Iran can now pair cyberattacks with elaborate and convincing social engineering. During the 2020 U.S. presidential election, the U.S. blamed Iran for a voter intimidation operation featuring emails spoofed to look like they were from the right-wing extremist group Proud Boys.
Not unsurprisingly, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco—signatories to the U.S.-brokered Abraham Accords that normalized Arab-Israeli relations—are pursuing greater cyber-defense cooperation. Iran and its allies have targeted each aggressively. But it would be a mistake to assume that this newfound collaboration will produce stability without American leadership. Retaliatory measures by these countries risk stoking regional conflict and drawing Washington into an unwanted conflict. Strategic direction from the U.S. will help prevent unnecessary cyber escalation while providing a common vision for marshaling resources against the Iranian threat.