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Battlefield Cyberspace

September 5, 2022

by: Ilse Strauss, News Bureau Chief

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In the not-so-distant past, Israel and Iran were firm friends. So close was the bond that the Jewish state and the Islamic Republic were well on their way planning a grand joint venture to coproduce military equipment—Jerusalem’s biggest ever partnership at that point—when the 1978 Iranian Revolution overthrew the Shah, put a swift end to the alliance and pitted the two nations against one another.

Today, the two former friends turned arch foes have been at war for nearly 45 years. Granted, it’s a conflict without khaki-clad young men marching to the battlefield or tanks rumbling over shell-pitted fields. The war between Israel and Iran is fought in the shadows. Attacks are clandestine, executed behind the scenes and with enough plausible deniability to avoid retaliation. Israel’s weapons of choice include—supposedly—strikes to prevent Iran from entrenching in war-torn Syria, sabotaging key nuclear and weapons facilities and eliminating lynchpins in Tehran’s anti-Israel efforts. Iran’s arsenal comprise—reportedly—using terror proxies to encircle Israel, funneling weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza to do its dirty work and launching terror attacks against Israelis internationally.

The rapid advance of technology continues to alter the shadowy battlefield, pushing to the fore a weapon with unfathomable potential for destruction. Over the past decade, cyber has increasingly become the space for strategic confrontation between Jerusalem and Tehran. These cyber hostilities do not occur in a vacuum but take place against the backdrop of Iran’s sprint to nuclear status. And as the mullahs come closer to fulfilling their nuclear dream, the extent and diversity of Israel and Iran’s cyber scuffles are on the rise.

The Opening Shot

The first cyber shot between Israel and Iran rang out in 2010, when the Stuxnet malicious virus reportedly wrought havoc on Tehran’s nuclear program, sending the centrifuge site at Natanz into disarray. The attack proved a watershed—not only in the shadow war between Israel and Iran, but also in cyberwarfare as a whole. Stuxnet went down in history as the “world’s first digital weapon,” with the attack standing as the first known cyberattack in the world to cause physical damage other than computer-stored data.

Israel never owned up to Stuxnet—and why would it? Plausible deniability is, after all, the hallmark of a shadow war. But Tehran certainly held a partnership between Jerusalem and Washington responsible.

For the next decade, Israel and Iran engaged in frequent back-and-fourth skirmishes in cyberspace. However, the attacks were relatively low-level, the targets remained private and the potential to inflict damage minor.

The Next Level

April 2020 marked another turning point as the salvos in the Israeli–Iranian cyber face-of emerged from the shadows. For the first time, Iran launched a public cyberattack on Israeli physical infrastructure. The attack aimed to breach the Jewish state’s water and sewage system to change the chemical balance of the water flowing into civilian homes by altering the chlorine levels.

Israel detected the breach and averted a catastrophe. Still, Jerusalem viewed it as Tehran crossing a red line, as the mullahs legitimizing the use of cyber as a weapon against a civilian population, which could be construed as an act of war.

Israel’s reaction revealed how seriously it took the attack. In a disproportionate, broad-ranging response aimed at showcasing Jerusalem’s technological superiority and hitting Tehran so hard that the mullahs would think twice before striking Israel again, a number of accidents, incidents and disasters struck Iranian civilian and military targets nationwide.

In May 2020, the computer system at one of Iran’s main ports crashed, grinding operations at the bustling hub to a halt for days. Apart from the egg on Tehran’s face, the crash also inflicted significant damage on the Iranian economy.

Over the next few months, a series of mysterious disasters—explosions, power outages, blazes and chemical spills—tore through military facilities, factories and industrial installations across Iran, many of these locations linked to the nuclear program or ballistic missile production. The most severe occurred in April 2021, when a mammoth blast at the Natanz nuclear facility caused such widespread damage that it reportedly set the Islamic regime’s nuclear program back months or even years.

Speculation, news reports and foreign officials attributed these disasters to cyberattacks—with Israel as the orchestrator. Yet once again, Jerusalem didn’t own up.

Current Salvos

The past year has seen much of the same cyber tit-for-tat. In December, a cyberattack wrought havoc on Iran’s top university. A month earlier, the Islamic republic’s second-largest airline was hacked, incapacitating its website. And a month before that, a hack disabled the pumps at a large chunk of the country’s gas stations, effectively crippling transportation. Then there was leaked security footage from an Iranian prison showing guards abusing prisoners, a paralyzed railway system and more attacks on airports in major cities.

Tehran blamed Jerusalem for the majority of attacks, while the Jewish state stuck to its policy of remaining mum.

Iran wasn’t sitting idly by as Israel allegedly took cyber shots. In December, a Tel Aviv cybersecurity firm admitted that an Iran-linked hacking group had targeted a slew of Israeli companies. Then, an Israeli threat-hunter team uncovered a months-long campaign of attacks on telecom operators, IT services organizations and a utility company in Israel and its neighbors, with Iran most likely behind the siege. Then there were ransomware attacks, personal information of key officials released, private data made public and a service attack on Israeli government ministry websites that disabled them for a short time.

In the latest exchange of cyber fire at the time of writing, a suspected cyberattack sent air raid sirens in Jerusalem and Eilat wailing. And days later, a suspected cyberattack disabled operations at Iran’s three largest steel manufacturing plants.

Weapon of Choice?

A day after the three steel plants in the Islamic Republic to grind to a halt, then Prime Minister Naftali Bennett spoke at the annual Cyber conference in Tel Aviv. “Just like there is nuclear deterrence, there is going to be cyber deterrence,” he said. “My attitude when it comes to our enemies—especially Iran—is that we do not work to create destruction and terror…Our policy is, if you mess with Israel, you’ll pay a price.”

Bennett continued to highlight the advantages of cyber warfare as opposed to traditional military tactics. Striking at the enemy, he said, no longer entails sending “100 or 50 commandoes behind enemy lines. Today it is possible to do things—harm the enemy—through cyber warfare. Now, all you need is a few people and a keyboard.”

Bennett’s sentiments were particularly telling seeing that the former director general of Israel’s National Cyber Directorate admitting last year that Israel would use every resource at its disposal—including cyber—to halt Iran’s race to the nuclear finish line.

As warnings increase that Tehran is getting precariously close to nuclear breakout status, many the world over are watching the skies to see whether Jerusalem will launch a preemptive strike to thwart the mullah’s ambitions. Perhaps they should be watching cyberspace instead.

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