Iran May Opt for Cyber Attacks in Retaliation for New U.S. Sanctions

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This past May, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive memorandum to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear weapons deal started under then-President Barack Obama. With the deal ended it was only a matter of time before U.S. sanctions would take effect with many experts speculating on what an economic war with the totalitarian regime would entail.

Unfortunately, much of the speculation has turned towards the possibility of retaliatory measures that Tehran might invoke. While the ultimate concern is in regards to Iran’s proliferation of nuclear weapons, a far more immediate threat is the risk of an aggressive cyber attack against regional enemies and the U.S., according to many experts.

History shows that Iran has turned to these tactics before. In response to U.S. sanctions, the Islamic regime orchestrated cyber attacks against the American financial industry. While the Obama administration negotiated with Iran for the original nuclear deal, the country minimized their overt computer breaches, however, the regime continued its attacks on U.S. allies.

Iran is uniquely capable of understanding the full effects of heavy U.S. economic sanctions, their recent past with such coercion techniques devastated their economy and undermined their military strength. Analysts from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) agree that Iran doesn’t have the strength to compete with the U.S. in conventional warfare methods, but cyber campaigns provide Iran with an equalizing force and they have already demonstrated a willingness and capability to execute such attacks on the U.S. and American allies.

The analysts went on to explain that Iran first became consumed with cyber-warfare after their own nuclear infrastructure fell victim to such a breach. In the aftermath, Tehran increased investments to its own cyber capabilities, both defensive and offensive, by enlisting the help of a hacker community within its own borders.

Nowadays, intelligence specialists believe that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) manages the majority of Iran’s cyber operations. The military branch monitors and delegates tasks to independent groups that provide an element of deniability to the government for the criminal actions taken by the hackers. These cyber specialists engage in regime-sponsored operations, criminal operations, and legitimate software development on behalf of Tehran.

Recently, Iran’s cyber unit carried out attacks against middle Eastern governments and businesses, globally accessed universities and foreign companies operating in the Middle East (predominantly U.S.). The high-profile Shamoon 2 Malware attack is believed to be the act of Iranian cybercriminals.

Going forward, cyber-security experts agree that the U.S. needs to do more to prepare for threats from Iran on the cyber-front. Some recommendations include organizing and carrying out wargames to test U.S. cyber defense capabilities, provide actionable intelligence to private sector companies that are most vulnerable to cyber-attack in order to strengthen all U.S. assets and be prepared to respond to any large-scale cyber attacks with proportionate retaliatory attacks of our own.


Iran’s Nuclear Program


After the Trump administration pulled the U.S. out of the Iranian nuclear deal, speculation reached a fever pitch about the future of the Middle Eastern powers’ weapons program. While the issue is far from cut and dry, just about everyone agrees that preventing a nuclear-armed Iran is imperative to maintaining stability in the region.

With tensions at an all-time high between Iran and Western powers, there has been no better time to review the turbulent past that led the world to this moment.

Global Perspective

Shortly after WWII, in light of the U.S. detonation of nuclear weapons in Japan and in response to the arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was founded in 1953 to help bring stability and peaceful nuclear development to the world.

At around that time the U.S. and Iran were close partners with a strong diplomatic relationship. In 1957 the two countries signed a nuclear cooperation agreement under the Atoms for Peace program. By 1967 the U.S. was helping Iran develop its first research reactor in Tehran. Iran wasn’t the only country to receive assistance with building nuclear energy reactors. The U.S. assisted several other nations, going so far as to provide enriched Uranium as a fuel supply.

However, the amicable relationship was sullied by the 1970s shortly after the Non-Proliferation Treaty went into effect. Iran was one of the original signatories of the treaty, but at the same time began making active strides towards developing weaponized nuclear technology. They began sending students to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to study nuclear physics and significantly ramped up their funding of non-civilian nuclear research.

The U.S. maintained good relations with Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, but the leader at the time was beginning to lose the trust of his people. The social dissent reached a boiling point in 1979 with the Iranian Revolution. That was a critical turn in the history of Iran and its relationship with the rest of the world.

Iran’s Deception

In the 1980s Iran found their allies suddenly unwilling to help with any projects related to nuclear development. Out of desperation, they began seeking alternative ways of acquiring the necessary supplies and information to finish their weapons project. Former Iranian President, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani sought assistance from the Pakistani government but was denied.

However, a lone Pakistani scientist by the name of Abdul Qadeer Khan covertly shared the designs of a centrifuge for enriching Uranium, provided a list of suppliers and went as far as to assist in the design of a bomb itself. Khan has also been accused of selling nuclear secrets to North Korea and Libya.

Iran managed to hide evidence of their activities until 2002. Dissident groups within the countries’ government exposed previously secret nuclear research facilities, which the IAEA noted were in breach of its safeguards agreement.

The U.N. and IAEA officially demanded that Iran stop its uranium-enrichment programs, but they didn’t. They became more secretive and blatantly denied requests for Western nations and third-party watchdog groups to inspect facilities.

A Short-Lived Breakthrough

Finally, the Iranian government agreed to a deal with the U.S., France, China, the UK, and Germany, called the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Agreement (JCPOA). The deal was touted as a victory and one step closer to a denuclearized Iran, but many critics insisted it didn’t go far enough. As Mark Dubowitz of FDD stated,  it would still allow Iran to continue its nuclear program thanks to impractical oversight measures and a short-term timeline.

Analysts like Dubowitz believe the Trump administration’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear agreement can ultimately be for the best if it leads to stronger enforcement against the country’s nuclear weapons development. In the meantime, Iran’s decades of nuclear secrecy leaves few with the hope that satisfactory agreement can be reached in the foreseeable future. Read more about the CEO of FDD.

Financing Terror: Follow the Money Trial


Understanding how terrorist organizations fund them is an essential step in targeting them more effectively. While there are standard trends, it’s vital to look at the specifics of each organization to understand how they finance their activities. The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, (FDD), created the Terror Finance Briefing Book to educate policymakers on how terrorist groups fund their operations. FDD — run by Mark Dubowitz —is a nonpartisan, policy institute based on Washington, D.C. Read more about it here, or check out their channel to hear interviews, see news clips, and view other resources run by FDD on YouTube.


The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), is one of the highest funded terrorist organizations in the world. Unlike most terrorist organizations ISIL isn’t reliant on outside income. Instead, they derive the majority of their finances from land-holdings and exploiting resources such as petroleum, taxes levied against the local population, extortion, illegal drug production, and money stolen directly from banks. It’s estimated that in 2016 ISIL had revenue north of $500 million. The year before that, they likely earned between $1 and $2 billion. The majority of the organization’s expenses cover the cost of supplies and salaries for fighters as well as administrative fees. However, as ISIL suffered territory losses and a reduction of revenue, there have been severe cuts to wages. Due to the uncertainty of future earnings, it is likely ISIL will become more dependent on external donors and will increase exploitative practices such as kidnapping for ransom to finance its operations.


In recent years, U.S. officials have stated that Hezbollah was “in its worst financial shape in decades.” The organization primarily spends its revenue on its fighting forces in Lebanon and Syria, and on the provision of social services in southern Lebanon. These expenses, as well as U.S. sanctions and the ongoing Syrian civil war, have strained its funding. Despite the negative toll on their balance sheets, Hezbollah is likely to stay afloat thanks to external support from Iran, which contributes roughly a billion dollars a year. However, that isn’t their only source of income. Hezbollah has a vast network of illegal businesses around the world and in many ways acts more like a cartel than a terrorist organization. Several countries in South America give the group’s smuggling and trafficking networks safe harbor. Hezbollah has laundered money and run front companies on six continents.

Al-Qaeda’s Branch in Syria – HTS

Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, which now calls itself Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), generates tens of millions of dollars per year. The group’s financial strength depends on maintaining its image as a more civilian-friendly, alternative to ISIL. To meet this goal, HTS pays for sharia courts, provides healthcare, free electricity, water, and subsidized food, and has several charitable operations, in addition to paying for soldiers’ salaries and military equipment. The group primarily funds itself through ransom, foreign donations, and the exploitation of resources from the land it controls. In recent years kidnapping has become more crucial after it lost oil fields to ISIL.

ISWA – Boko Haram

The Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA), also known as Boko Haram, is not as well financed as many of its counterparts, but is buoyed by its mobility and low-cost operations while acting for the most part in a poorly governed territory. The Nigerian military has increased pressure in recent years, but it’s unlikely their effort will stop ISWA. By exploiting vulnerable populations for resources, the group managed to generate a revenue of at least $10 million a year until 2015. They have historically taken advantage of the unpoliced borders to execute raids against villages in order to steal food and livestock, but recently the Nigerian government has stated that their funding has declined, and that they have been struggling to pay their fighters’ salaries. One strength the organization has, making it resistant to restrictions on the banking sector, is their use of the hawala system to move money and accept donations from foreign sources without being tracked.