A picture of the Iran threat

Pierluigi Paganini May 14, 2012

The situation in Iran is becoming really critic, time go by and every diplomatic solution is not realizable. We have western countries disturbed by an aggressive policy of the government in Tehran, defiant as ever, that risks trigger a dangerous situation in the Middle East undermining the unstable equilibrium of the whole area. Many time we have said that a military option has sense only if conduced in a short time, experts and scientists are convinced in fact that Iran in a couple of years will be able to build its own nuclear arsenal. In the meantime, despite the Western threats, Iran is still working on the debated nuclear program. According the revelations of an exiled Iranian opposition group Iran has some 60 scientists and engineers involved in a concerted and expanding program to develop nuclear weapons under the control of ministry of defense. Government of Teheran is rejecting any allegations about uranium enrichment program, arguing that the goals are not military but related to supplies of alternative energy. The US and Israeli intelligence officials are convinced that the program has the unique purpose to create new weapons for the Government, opinion also share with the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) that has provided to the Reuters agency a report that says:

“Information … shows that the clerical regime has expanded the organization responsible for nuclear weapons development,” “This finding reveals a complete and elaborate, and highly … secret research structure and a network for procurement of the required parts and equipment. “So far, the identities of 60 directors and experts working in various parts of the New Defense Research Organization and 11 institutions and companies affiliated with it have been detailed,”

A nuclearized Iran represents a threat to Israel’s existence, and a serious threat for all the western countries.

If the US and Israel are postponing a conventional military option, different approach has been followed in the cyberspace, the new battle field. The Obama administration has concentrated great efforts in this area especially in the last couple of year, increasing awareness on cyber threats and the related risks for the Nation. Protection of critical infrastructures is the first target of the cyber strategy but despite the great effort, too many plants and networks are still vulnerable. Countries such as China and Russia, but also the same Iran, are de fact dangerous cyber threats that can infiltrate US networks and attacks American private companies.

The alarm is high.

It is opinion of the security experts that Iran could represent a serious threat in the cyberspace, the domain where Teheran has major possibilities to deal with the American enemy. We must consider that Iranian Government is facing with international sanctions and internal dissents against central administration. The internal conflicts have created several problems to Iran that in the last year has invested a lot in web monitoring systems with the intent to control and to isolate the external infiltrations, avoiding that internal opposition could benefit of foreign collaboration and could be influenced by western cultures. The surveillance of web has became in short time a priority for Iran that could count on the cooperation of China, one of the nations to have greater experience in the field of media monitoring. We must also consider that the interest on cyberspace of Teheran has been driven by the need to protect their critical infrastructures from cyber threats developed by hostile countries. Stuxnet is considered one of the most aggressive and innovative cyber weapon that hit Iran and its nuclear program. Suddenly Iran has discovered itself vulnerable to this new type of attacks that requested an immediate commitment in cyberspace and investments in related technologies.  The Iranian Government has invested more over $1 billion to improve national cyber capabilities, promoting the creation new cyber army composed by experts and young resources trained to the cyber war. The international community is convinced that Iran is one of most advanced country in cyber offense matter, it obvious to imagine that that potential could be directed against hostile countries. The cyber offense against Iran has triggered a massive engage of the country in cyber warfare, Teheran has officially declared war to the West. It’s clear that Iranian government has invested more in cyber offense capabilities than cyber defense. This imbalance is increased during the last year, evidence that Teheran is really interested to move cyber attacks against its enemies. Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, reporting to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in January, on Iranian cyber capabilities declared:

“have dramatically increased in recent years in depth and complexity.” More and more, they also appear to be directed against the United States.

Which are the cyber replies of foreign government?

It’s clear that government such as Israel and US, but also European countries, are scared by Iran capabilities, so they have also started massive cyber operation against Iran to evaluate its defense system, but also with the objective to offend strategic sector of the countries, like Oil sector. In the last week several attacks have hit the Oil industry, and in the past months many countries have approved cyber sanction against Teheran, like the prohibition of sale to Iran anti-virus systems.  But the most plausible situation is that Iran and Western alliance are working on a new generation on cyber weapons. This new type of weapons represents an excellent compromise in term of costs and efficiency, but what is most interesting in this phase is the possibilities to adopt them in covert operations.

How Iran is implementing its cyber defense?

First of all they are reinforcing their infrastructures intensifying the monitoring of the web as described before with the help of historical partner. Also massaging platform have been impacted, Iran’s Minister of Communications and Technology has announced a ban on the use of foreign email services such as Gmail and Yahoo to “protect information security.”  The processes implemented have moved every government web resource (e.g. critical servers and web sites) in hardened infrastructure under direct control of the regime. Second step is related to the adoption of security system, hardware and software, developed in home to avoid presence of backdoors. Next objective is the developing of a national internet aimed protecting the transfer of information and “cleansing” inappropriate content.

Giving a look to these measures it’s clear that Iran is trying to reinforce those aspects in the defense that experts have evidenced as vulnerabilities of Iran cyber forces.

At this point the question is:

Will Western military coalition attack the Iran or the battlefield will be just cyber space?

Personally I think it’s not probably an impending attack but I’m also convinced that a military option is the only viable in the absence of dialogue.
The opposition of Russia and China to a military operation is in fact blocking all operations of the Western coalition providing to the regime of Teheran precious time to organize its resources.
Another discriminant factor is the real intention of the United States and Israel to engage in a conflict far from simple. Iran may in fact hide dangers not less than those faced in wars such as Afghanistan. The Afghanistan war started in 2001, in an economic context profoundly different, in a today analysis it must be considered the global economic crisis that would prevent any government to face a potentially costly conflict and outcomes so uncertain.
It’s also true that the crisis could also accelerate a decision, Iran is one of the main oil produced and its natural resources could represent a good reason to justify a conflict although expensive.

How close are we to the point of no return?

Only the time could provide us the answer to our question.

Pierluigi Paganini

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