EIRUT, Lebanon, — The Middle East’s cyberwar with Israel and the United States on one side and Iran on the other is steadily escalating, with increasingly sophisticated cyber weapons being used against a growing array of military and economic targets.
The region has become a hot cyber battleground, a testing ground for a new form of warfare that in its most strategic form can knock out a country’s economic system without firing a shot.
The United States, Britain and Israel have been zapping Iran’s nuclear installations, and more recently its oil industry, for three years. Tehran claims these powers are preparing a “massive cyberattack” against it as Iran is locked in an increasingly tense confrontation with the United States in the Persian Gulf.
In June, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak publicly acknowledged the Jewish state was conducting a cyber offensive against Iran aimed at crippling Tehran’s contentious nuclear program.
“We’re preparing to be at the front line of the worldwide cyber battle, both in civil and security systems,” he told a Tel Aviv conference.
Iran has been the target of several cyberattacks by the United States and Israel since 2009. Particularly Iran’s uranium enrichment program, the core of the nuclear militarization process, was affected.
It was the primary target of the so-called Stuxnet computer virus first used in 2009 and again in 2010. Those attacks sabotaged the enrichment process but Iran was able to restore it.
Computer experts say Stuxnet was created by the Americans and Israelis.
Iran’s nuclear program came under cyberattack in June, this time from an even more virulent cyber weapon identified as W32.Flame. This one not only penetrates a system but can steal sensitive data and turn on cameras and computer microphones to obtain additional data or change settings on computer systems.
The day Flame was discovered, Israel’s deputy premier, Moshe Yaalon, dropped broad hints the Jewish state’s intelligence services were behind the cyberattack.
“These achievements of ours open all kinds of possibilities for us,” he said.
The Iranians have not been idle and are no doubt striving to develop countermeasures or offensive malware to retaliate against the West.
Indeed, in recent weeks there have been clear indications they’ve struck back. Israeli defense sources say the military’s communications network has been attacked.
On Aug. 15, a mystery virus infected 30,000 desktop computers at the headquarters of Saudi Arabia’s state oil company, Aramco, the world’s largest oil company and the principal source of revenue for the Saudi monarchy.
The attack on the world’s leading oil producer, which provides about 1-10th of the world’s oil supplies, was claimed by a group calling itself “the Cutting Sword of Justice.”
Iran and Saudi Arabia are old rivals engaged in an escalating intelligence war.
The Saudis say the virus, known as “Shamoon,” wiped Aramco’s computers’ hard drives but didn’t damage technical operations.
Aramco said its main internal network services were soon restored but the Financial Times reported Aug. 30 that oil traders in Houston, Geneva and London were communicating with Aramco by fax and telex because the digital systems were down.
“It’s like going back 20 years in time,” one trader commented.
The lesson was stark: a major disruption of the company’s production networks, carried out by a technologically advanced attacker, would have had a major impact on world energy supplies and the global economy.
The attack appeared to be the work of hackers rather than state intelligence services like the CIA or Israel’s Mossad, although it may have been a “false flag” operation.
Soon after the Aramco attack, the IT network at Qatar’s RasGas, one of the world’s largest natural gas producers, was also hit in a cyberattack.
These were the first known cyber assaults to target Middle Eastern companies involved in supplying global energy requirements.
In April, Iran’s Oil Ministry and the National Oil Co. were hit, forcing them to disconnect control systems at several key oil facilities, including the large export terminal at Kharg Island in the northern gulf.
In August, Israel was hit in what appeared to be a retaliatory Iranian cyberattack using a Trojan horse virus dubbed “Mahdi” because it contained Persian words in the programming code.
The Middle East’s cyberwar with Israel and the United States on one side and Iran on the other is steadily escalating.