The Times of Israel is reporting that Israel and Iran have opened up a new front in the low-level war the two countries have been engaged in for the past few years. The front is being fought in cyberspace.
“The former head of Military Intelligence on Tuesday said a sophisticated cyberattack on an Iranian port last week appeared to be an Israeli retaliation to Tehran’s failed attempted hacking of Israel’s water companies last month, sending a message that Jerusalem could significantly harm Iran’s economy if attacks on Israeli civilian infrastructure continued.”
The Israeli cyber attack brought down the computer systems that controlled vehicle and ship traffic at the Shahid Rajaee port, causing massive backups. Shahid Rajaee is located on the Persian Gulf near the Straits of Hormuz. It handles 100 million tons of cargo each year. It is one of the main entry and exit points for Iran’s imports and exports.
By shutting down Shahid Rajaee, Israel demonstrated to Iran that it can cut that country off from the outside world at will. Iran’s economy is already suffering due to economic sanctions initiated by the United States as well as the rock bottom price of oil and gas, Iran’s main exports. If Israel or any other country decided to close Iran’s ports, either through cyberattacks or a more conventional naval blockade, that country’s economy would quickly collapse.
Iran has tried to take down Israel’s water distribution system, something that the Jewish state relies on for its survival. A complex system of pumps, pipelines, and desalination plants ensures that Israelis have enough water to live and to operate its agricultural sector. Fortunately, Iran’s cyberattack on Israel turned out to be ineffective. Otherwise, Israel would have found itself without a way to distribute water in an arid part of the world.
Israel has brought to cyberspace a tactic that has proven to be tried and true in the real world.
“This appears to indicate that Israel has adopted a tit-for-tat strategy in responding to Iranian cyber aggression — a tactic already used by the Israeli military with physical, or kinetic, attacks — as the digital realm becomes increasingly important in modern warfare.”
Since its founding, Israel has always responded to terrorist attacks, whether they involved armed fedayeen or suicide bombing or, more recently, rocket barrages, with airstrikes. The idea is that the air attacks would discourage terrorists based in Lebanon or the Gaza Strip by inflicting disproportionate damage. The strategy works, at least for a while.
Ironically, Iran tried to pull off its cyberattack on Israel’s water distribution system in retaliation for the Jewish state’s airstrikes on Iranian units in Syria. According to Reuters, Israel’s air campaign against Iranian and Iranian backed militias has met with considerable success, so much so that Iran has started to withdraw its units from Syria.
The hacking of the computers at the Shahid Rajaee port was not the first cyberattack conducted against Iran by any means. Several years ago, a computer worm called Stuxnet was introduced to a computer at one of Iran’s facilities where that country’s atomic bomb program is being conducted. The worm caused the centrifuges that were used to create bomb-grade uranium to spin out of control, eventually breaking them. The cyberattack is thought to have set back Iran’s atomic bomb program by years. Stuxnet is thought to have been a joint operation conducted by Israel and the United States.
The tit for tat cyberattacks between Israel and Iran illustrate that cyberspace is just another battle space between opponents. Much of the world is controlled by computer systems and are thus vulnerable to attack. Such attacks need to be warded off by sophisticated cybersecurity systems, much like the attack on Israel’s water distribution system was turned back.
As it turns out, power grids are a prime target for cyberterrorists. A cyberattack that takes down a power grid, especially in the middle of a hot summer or a cold winter, would cause widespread destruction and death. Cybersecurity experts, both in the military and in the private sector, are keeping awake at night devising means to ward off such attacks.
The stark truth of the matter is that the most important battles of the future are not going to be conducted on the battlefield, but in dimly lit rooms by people seated at consoles, wielding weapons that have no physical existence, but are potent all the same,