Iran, forgoing for a moment from nuclear sabre-rattling because of the recent and much- acclaimed accord it signed with the West has turned to cyber warfare instead, in order to retain its edge. Just four months after concluding a treaty to limit its atomic ambitions, American officials and private security groups say they see a surge in sophisticated computer espionage by the country.
During the years of negotiation over the deal, a constant concern was Iran’s past penchant for duplicity, and that there have been a series of cyber attacks against the US State Department is not in doubt.
These targeted hacks are an apparent attempt by Iran to retake the high ground in its ongoing offensive against the US, while eliminating the risk of a military response- especially in light of the nuclear accord, and Iran’s anticipated financial windfall from it. It is obviously testing the Obama administration’s resolve, as many foreign leaders have, notably President Putin of Russia. Iran is obviously gambling that the US won’t retaliate, and have Obama lose the positive PR advantage he has achieved over sealing the deal, to say nothing about the victory laps it has been running. Many experts see this as Iran’s opportunity to regain the influence it has conceded in abandoning its nuclear ambitions.
According to knowledgeable sources, during the past month, Iranian hackers targeted individual State Department officials who focus on Iran and the Middle East, and broke into their email and social media accounts. The State Department employees were apprised by Facebook, who told the victims that state-sponsored hackers had compromised their accounts.
The sophistication and specificity of the hack were both revealing and alarming. As one senior American official requesting anonymity as the investigation is ongoing noted,
“It was very carefully designed and showed the degree to which they understood which of our staff was working on Iran issues now that the nuclear deal is done. It was subtle.”
While the attack itself may have been subtle, its planning and timing were not. The attacks, which have been on the increase in recent years, reached a peak in May before tapering off. They eventually disappeared during the delicate nuclear negotiations. The Iranians obviously didn’t want to disrupt progress to a bill that many believe is overly generous and accommodating for them. In what critics of the obliging treaty point out as proof of their duplicity, Iran resumed the hacking activity when the accord was reached.
However, according to the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, the hacks are of a level meant to tweak the US, not to threaten Iran’s soon-to-be-realized swag from the treaty. Once it receives this, it is likely that it will thumb its nose at the US, and intensify their cyber spying. James Lewis, who runs the cyber program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said,
“They seem very attuned to every stage of implementing the nuclear agreement.”
Given these developments, it would not be wrong to question the honesty of the Iranians, and have a wonder at what this portends for their adherence to the stipulations of the nuclear deal. The notion of a bad deal being better than no deal doesn’t look so brilliant now! But the State Department of this administration, hungry for a deal at any cost, in order to claim a victory, has said none of this will affect the coming implementation of the nuclear deal.
The International Atomic Energy Agency reported last week that Iran is already beginning to dismantle some of its centrifuges, though independent reports also posit that Iran is secretly retaining some of these. Has the US and the West been sold a bill of goods and been hoodwinked? Time will tell, but based on these recent developments, there should be no cause for optimism. It, like many other festering problems, is being kicked down the road for another president.