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What the US-Iran tensions mean for the future of cyber warfare

The tensions between Iran and the United States continue to place relations on a knife’s edge and cyber warfare has staked out a position in the ongoing theatrics. In recent months, the news has turned to the Strait of Hormuz with a series of back-and-forth accusations and skirmishes. As Iran gradually breaches terms of the JCPOA and the United Kingdom becomes increasingly involved in maritime disagreements, the United States’ cyber attack targeting the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has become just one of many headlines worthy of greater attention.

Conflict playing out in the cyber realm is hardly a new phenomenon in these two countries’ fraught relationship. Instances have ranged from the alleged American attempts at stalling Iran’s nuclear efforts with the Stuxnet worm to Iranian attacks on American banks such as JP Morgan and Bank of America. Iran has a long history of linkages with hackers and hushed-up cyber tactics whilst the Pentagon’s elevation of Cyber Command to combatant level last year marked a new, pivotal role for cyber in the American military. According to Microsoft’s Tom Burt, cyber activity targeting American entities originating in Iran “spiked” following the US withdrawal from the JCPOA as the company notified close to 10 000 customers compromised by nation-state attacks from Iran, Russia and North Korea.

Washington’s recent cyber strike, however, should be noted as a new phase in cyber warfare. Following the downing of an American surveillance drone in late June,  President Trump backtracked on a conventional military response in favour of a cyber strike launched by the US Cyber Command to undermine the command and control systems of Iranian missiles.

The technology and capabilities involved were neither particularly revolutionary nor novel in nature - the online attack was likely to have had fewer inflammatory consequences than the alternative conventional strike option and its 150 expected casualties. Nonetheless, Trump’s decision to forgo a conventional move for cyber retaliation as a proportionate response to the shot-down drone represents a significant change in the dynamics of warfare. The immediate nature of the response and the integration of cyber and physical operations is pertinent given cyber operations have in the past been largely reserved for retaliating against attacks of the same nature or covertly.

Not only is this a United States more willing to wield cyber weapons but one that does so openly. Where in the past cyber operations have been long shrouded in secrecy, particularly offensive strategies, the public nature of the attack on Iran does not appear to be an unintentional leak for the Pentagon. Whilst the US administration declined to officially comment and inside sources have requested anonymity, the attack’s disclosure was treated similarly to a physical attack. In a blatant declaration, National Security Adviser John Bolton stated “we’re now opening the aperture, broadening the areas we’re prepared to act in” regarding the conduct of offensive cyber measures. The emphasis is shifting from defensive strategies to publicising offensive cyber capabilities as a deterrent.

The overlap of both physical and cyber means as offensive and retaliatory operations appears to be a new trend bringing cyber operations to a more visible role in warfare. Breaking the cyber silo translates physical, conventional conflicts into the online realm but the inverse holds true. Whilst choosing cyber operations over conventional force may de-escalate tensions in some instances, the blurring of boundaries could see cyber tensions intensify to physical conflicts. This was apparent in the recent Israeli Defence Forces’ air strike on the Gaza Strip in May as retaliation for a suspected Hamas-led cyber attack; the first known example of a kinetic state response to a cyberattack.

More frequent use of offensive cyber in modern warfare brings greater possibilities of misunderstanding and miscalculation given the difficulties in determining intent and the prevalence of false flag operations. Fewer costs in terms of physical personnel could lower the threshold to war as states initiate cyber assaults that quickly escalate. 

Efforts within the United Nations to develop cyber norms, legally binding regulations or even clarify existing international law’s application to cyber space have so far failed to reach consensus. Cyber operations are coming out of the shadows as an overt part of military warfare, and this change will have consequences.  

The United State’s open demonstration of offensive cyber force will not be the last of its kind. The international community would do well to consider the potentially unnoticed cyber precedents set by such actions.

Su-Yin Lew is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.


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