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Why Iran's favorite weapon is the cyber attack

In a piece written for The Cipher Brief, Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute details Iran's weapon of choice for imposing its will on domestic and foreign threats alike — cyber attacks.


Eisenstadt, as well as experts contacted by Business Insider, say that Iran has a weak conventional military that couldn't possibly hope to push around stronger countries. For that reason, cyber attacks represent the perfect weapon.

Related: US may have to consider firing on Iranian boats after latest attack

Cyber attacks are cheap, ambiguous, hard to pin on any one actor, and almost completely without precedent when it comes to gauging a military response.

Cyber attacks allow Iran "to strike at adversaries globally, instanta­neously, and on a sustained basis, and to potentially achieve strategic effects in ways it cannot in the physical domain," writes Eisenstadt.

Unlike the US, which wields nuclear weapons and the world's finest military, Iran relies on its ability to potentially wreak havoc in the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world's busiest oil shipping routes, its funding of terrorist organizations, and its arsenal of ballistic missiles to deter attacks, according to Eisenstadt.

"Hack those guys over there." | Creative Commons photo by Mohammad Sadegh Heydari

However, Tehran cannot hold the Strait of Hormuz in an outright confrontation, its terrorist allies have become increasingly vulnerable and targetable by world powers, and if Iran ever used a ballistic missile, it would soon find itself on the receiving end of a blistering counter attack.

Therefore cyber attacks give Iran a fourth kind of deterrence, one which the US has repeatedly failed to punish. Indeed, cyber attacks are new territory, and the US still hasn't found an appropriate and consistent way to deal with cyber attacks, whether those attacks come in the form of Russian meddling in the US election, North Korea's hack of Sony, or China's stealing valuable defense data.

Eisenstadt addresses this lack of US response as a "credibility gap," which the US must somehow fill.