From Nuclear Agreement to Cyber Confrontation

Mamuka Kirkitadze

National Security Analyst
Follow him on Twitter: @bukakirkitadze

Trump’s decision to leave Iran’s nuclear deal was no surprise to anyone. During the pre-election campaign, he said that in case of the presidency, he would definitely look over Iran’s nuclear accord and would try to make it more effective. Many were skeptical about this promise, many experts thought that with the efforts of European allies, the US could maintain an agreement.

On May 8, 2018, the US withdrew from Iran’s nuclear agreement. President Donald Trump made a statement about the withdrawal in the White House. According to him: “This was a horrible, one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made, It didn’t bring calm, it didn’t bring peace, and it never will.” [1]The withdrawal from the US nuclear deal means restoring strict sanctions on Iran that have been partially canceled during the 2015 agreement.

The deal with Iran did not come with simple effort. In September 2001, U.S Central Intelligence Agency has openly accused Iran of having one of the most active nuclear weapons program in the world. A year later, US President George W. Bush called Iran “an axis of evil” along with Iraq and North Korea.[2]

The current situation actually started in 2002 when Iran’s nuclear program was uncovered. Although Iran’s spiritual leader Ali Khamenei has officially rejected nuclear research for war purposes, many doubted that the enrichment of Tehran’s uranium enormously exceeded the number needed for nuclear power generation.[3]

This fact caused the international community’s outrage and the imposition of sanctions on Iran. The US and Europe were strongly opposed to Iran’s nuclear weapons production, which would have destabilized the international arena, especially in the region. George W. Bush’s administration in parallel negotiations with Iran started to seek alternative ways to prevent Tehran from producing nuclear weapons. Israel was also against Iran’s nuclear armament and started to play a key role along with the US to thwart this to happen. In addition, the Bush administration feared that unless the concrete steps were taken, the Jewish state would unilaterally launch air strikes against Iran.

In 2006, the Bush administration began working on a program called “Olympic Games”. The aim of the program was with non-conventional ways, specifically, through the cyber channels, to attack Iran’s nuclear reactors. The lion’s share of the “Olympic Games” is led by American Intelligence Agencies (NSA, CIA), who developed a computer virus “Stuxnet” along with Israeli’s Intelligence Agency Mossad.[4]

Security researchers found that the main target of the program was Iran’s nuclear facilities, first of all, the uranium enrichment facility in the city of Natanz. The harmful program specifically hampered the uranium enrichment process that led to the acceleration of pressure in centrifuges and created some kind of vibrations that could potentially harm or eradicate uranium enrichment equipment. Stuxnet was able to temporarily halt the uranium enrichment process but failed to bring any catastrophic damage to the nuclear facility. In technical terms, Stuxnet was exceptionally unlike the usual harmful programs due to its high capacity. The above-mentioned attack was an alarm call, from the point that it was possible to cause physical damage through the cyber-attack.

After the US cyber-attack,  former Iranian Ambassador and visiting current research scholar at Princeton University Seyed Hossein Mousavian stated, “The U.S., or Israel, or the Europeans, or all of them together, started war… Iran decided to establish a cyber-army, and today, after 4 or 5 years, Iran has one of the most powerful cyber armies in the world…it’s exaggerating the present capabilities but it’s working toward the future.”[5]

In 2013, the US banking sector was affected by massive cyber-attacks. As a result, several leading banks in the United States have suffered millions of dollars.[6] According to experts, it was Iran’s revenge, whose main driving force was the 2010 “Olympic Games”. In 2018, the United States charged nine of Iran’s citizens, who had managed to get academic data and intellectual property from the US’s 144 universities by cyber-attacks in four years. The US Department of Justice noted that it was one of the largest, state-sponsored cyber-attacks.[7]

In fact, the joint efforts of the US and Israel destabilize Tehran’s nuclear reactors was a turning point for Iran to revise its cyber strategy and pay attention to the sphere. Nowadays Iran’s cyber capabilities equal the level of U.S, Russia, China, and North Korea.[8]

In 2015, the signing of a nuclear deal with Iran has been adjusted the relations of both countries. Hard work of the Obama administration managed to temporarily hinder Tehran’s move to build a nuclear weapon. After a nuclear deal was signed, Iran’s destructive attacks on the US have been reduced.

After the withdrawal from the nuclear deal, Iranian hackers started sending emails containing malicious code programs for US diplomats aiming to infect their personal computers. “Until today, Iran was constrained,” said James Lewis, a former government official and cybersecurity expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “They weren’t going to do anything to justify breaking the deal. With the deal’s collapse, they will inevitably ask, ‘what do we have to lose?'”[9]. Furthermore, the Director General of the National Security Agency believes that the US and its allies should be ready for future growing cyber-attacks by Iran after the agreement was breached.

At the same time, as the Trump withdrew from a comprehensive action plan, the federal investigation bureau released a cyber-warning on May 23, saying that cybercriminals in the Islamic Republic of Iran might attack US business sectors.[10]

The former top White House cyber chief under President Barack Obama is warning that Iran may soon start to ramp up cyber-attacks on the United States in the wake of President Trump’s decision to pull out of the nuclear deal with that country. According to him, the Iranians have continued to improve their cyber skills, targeting Mideast allies of the United States even while the nuclear deal was in place.[11]

Certainly, America doesn’t face future cyber threats from Tehran unprepared. Cyber-attacks have been named as the number one threat in a document published by the US intelligence agencies in 2018.[12] The American Cyber Command Established in 2009, was transformed into a full and independent unified combat element that focuses on cybercrime capabilities with defensive cyber capabilities.[13]

It is also worth noting the views of President Trump’s new National Security Adviser John Bolton regarding the cyberspace. He believes that the United States must clearly demonstrate their cyber capabilities towards by offensive approach. In 2014, when North Korea made an unauthorized cyber-attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment, Bolton urged the Obama administration to respond with offensive attacks against the dictatorial state.[14]

The US and Iran relations, which become stable under the nuclear agreement signed in 2015, are still under threat. The strict sanctions on Tehran by the Trump administration can bring undesirable results to both countries that could be expressed within the frames of cyber aggression. The fact is that Washington, as well as Tehran, is considered to be the world’s best cyber-capable countries, which use cyberspace for national security means. Withdrawal from the nuclear deal can make the U.S target and this needs to be solved by Trump’s administration until the Cyber-Pearl Harbor takes place.

[1] https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/trump-destroys-the-iran-dealand-a-lot-more

[2] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/onpolitics/transcripts/sou012902.htm?noredirect=on

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/08/international/chronology-of-irans-nuclear-program.html

[4]https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/stuxnet-was-work-of-us-and-israeli-experts-officials-say/2012/06/01/gJQAlnEy6U_story.html

[5] Center on National Security at Fordham Law, discussion with Seyed Hossein Mousavian and Robert Windrem, February 12, 2013, available from www.centeronnationalsecurity.org.

[6]https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-iran-cyber/u-s-indicts-iranians-for-hacking-dozens-of-banks-new-york-dam-idUSKCN0WQ1JF

[7] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-43519437

[8] https://www.afcea.org/content/russia-iran-and-north-korea-bolder-cyber-realm

[9]https://www.smh.com.au/world/north-america/without-the-nuclear-deal-iranian-cyber-attacks-resume-20180512-p4zewk.html

[10] https://freebeacon.com/national-security/fbi-iran-launch-new-cyber-attacks/

[11]https://www.yahoo.com/news/obama-cyber-chief-iran-may-ramp-cyberattacks-trump-ditched-nuclear-deal-164600094.html?.tsrc=jtc_news_index

[12] https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/Newsroom/Testimonies/2018-ATA—Unclassified-SSCI.pdf

[13] https://dod.defense.gov/News/Article/Article/1511959/cybercom-to-elevate-to-combatant-command

[14] https://www.politico.com/story/2018/04/01/john-bolton-cyber-hawk-russia-451937