Small Wars Journal

Iran’s Focus: Cyberwarfare and Retaliation on the West

Mon, 08/05/2019 - 11:53am

Iran’s Focus: Cyberwarfare and Retaliation on the West

Benjamin J. Anderson

With Iran’s insatiable appetite for nuclear independence and cyber warfare retaliatory strikes against the West, the imposed sanctions have resulted in increased socio-economic unrest at a time where greater individual access to technology and communication devices by individuals may result in further regional destabilization.

Socio-economic Factors Affecting Iran

Iran’s desire to move into the nuclear age has resulted in significant international sanctions due to the potential instability created within the region.  While Iranian leadership has forged ahead with its nuclear ambitions, whether ideological, religious, or for independence, the resultant international sanctions, inspections, and oversight has translated into socio-economic factors that appear to be transforming the country from within.  As Copley points out, during the end of 2017 and beginning of 2018, Iran saw a spike in “widespread protests” that had not been observed since 2009, in part due to an increase in “youth unemployment” (2018, January).

Copley further delves into the basis of these protests as significant societal changes and dangers related to “improving economic performance…married to an even more rapid rise in societal expectations, particularly after a period of gradually worsening personal economic fortunes”.  These issues are further defined into three succinct categories that include:

  • Rapid growth of various socio-economic needs and the inability of the government to consistently meet them
  • Increased educational levels of citizens
  • A growing sentiment of educated Iranians of exclusion from governmental participation (2018, January).

With the rise of educational opportunities across the greater populace and the actual or perceived inability to participate in government, those issues faced between the Iranian leaders and unemployed youth may cause further instability to the region.  Additionally, the increased availability and modern-day access to communications technology, including smart phones, has significantly increased the potential for flash mobs and riots.

Although “counter-cyber and cyber based disruptive psychological operations” successfully limited the protests a decade ago, Copley points out that the shear volume of electronic communication access and technology has far out-paced the government’s ability to conduct similar actions (2018, January).  This in and of itself may indeed create a greater opportunity for destabilization within the region in the event that political, religious, and economic changes are not cultivated.

Further complicating the current economic conditions, increased educational levels, and greater access to technology, is the direction towards a religious unification and away from a pattern of governance surrounding alt-religious leaders.  Copley points to recent challenges of clerics who have been perceived as anti-Persian and being champions of external religious influences (2018, January) as a great concern for the region.

In the end, with the culmination of international sanctions, religious and economic unrest, as well as the abundance of technology and electronic communications, the inability of the government to squelch protests effectively as in the past may transform the country into new arenas of destabilization or victory.  One question that continues to linger is in regards to whether or not the current government and religious strongholds will pursue new technological advances in an attempt to further control individual actions psychologically, as was proven in 2009.  Evidence of change is no doubt on the horizon as illustrated in a recent article by DeMarche, who quoted U.S. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin regarding the latest sanctions as having removed access to “literally billions of dollars more of assets” (2019, June 24).

Iran’s Use of Cyber Warfare Against Other Nations

Although many nation states engage in cyber warfare activities on the West and other countries who fail to support their ideological positions, Iran has played a significant part on its perceived enemies as well.  In the 18 months preceding 2013, Perlroth and Sanger quoted Obama administration officials who indicated that the Iranian cyber-related skills had improved as evidenced by successful attacks against energy and oil industries within the region (2013, May 27) and appear to be “retaliatory in nature” (Corbin, 2013, March 21).  According to Baldor, the Saudi Arabian oil and gas infrastructure attacks appear to be the work of Iran through the use of “a virus, known as Shamoon, which can spread through networked computers” and overwrite existing files (2012, October) as well as U.S. corporations and energy companies (Perlroth and Sanger, 2013, May 27).

While the Shamoon virus devastated computers and systems across both Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s oil industries (Anonymous, 2012, December 08), successful attacks on critical infrastructure and other targets are also present within Iran’s cyber espionage and information warfare portfolio.  According to an article from Computer and Internet Lawyer, nine Iranians were indicted on cyber espionage charges after successfully compromising the accounts of over 100,000 university professors world-wide.  One of the purposes was to utilize and sell access to university library systems (Anonymous, 2018, June).

Although some may argue that the infiltration of universities world-wide is less innocuous than attacks on banks, or where thefts of personally identifiable information (PII) can be used, sold, and reused for personal gain, it should be noted that the ability to glean various research on a multitude of topics could prove equally devastating.  Revolutionary new designs, concepts, or methods involved in key areas of engineering, healthcare, or architecture could result in legal battles over patent ownership, lost revenue, and market-share.

Potential International Law Consequences Surrounding Cyber

The general opinion of Iranians is that any attack against the United States is justifiable due to the severe international sanctions imposed for the country’s failure in meeting nuclear program development requirements, which has severely impacted that region.  Additionally, Iran is a nation that is uninhibited from the “diplomatic or economic ties that restrain other nations from direct conflict with the U.S.”, which makes them a formidable adversary that “national security experts contend is not only capable, but willing to use a sophisticated computer-based attack” (Baldor, 2012, October).

Stavridis contends that Iran “will use asymmetric weapons such as cyber and terrorism to influence public opinion and increase their freedom to maneuver”.  “We need to use our own assets in the cybersphere…to deter Iranian adventurism in cyberspace” (Stavridis, 2016, October 24).  A limiting factor that still exists in relation to international law surrounding how information warfare is defined.  As Jacobson points out, “the variety of definitions,…indicates the ambiguity of the threat and thus the difficulty of defending against it” (1998).  Although Jacobson stated that over two decades ago, those challenges are even more prevalent today along with a much more sophisticated level of technology.

“The international law of jus ad-bellum”, or the law specifying “the use of force by states outside of armed conflict, has always been fraught with political complications and potential legal ambiguity” (Payne & Finlay, 2017).  International law and custom generally provides for the right of self-defense by countries as long as the non-military or unarmed attack being waged meets the standard of necessity and imminent based on the individual country’s understanding (Jacobson, 1998).

This appears to be a slippery slope that is open for interpretation.  It can generally be agreed upon that the face of the modern-day enemy has begun to migrate from the battlefield to that of the shadows within cyberspace.  Where a pending or actual cyber-attack by one nation or state may result in an immediate cyber retaliatory response, the same scenario on another country may postpone any immediate action, based on a long-term political strategy or through a greater understanding of international law approaches.

An interview of Mele, an attorney in Italy by Maitra, revealed that the current international legal landscape surrounding cyber-related laws and approaches appeared to be a “Wild-West” where “governments are benefiting…as the lack of legal coherence is providing military powers carte blanche to attack…under the radar” (2014, November 28).  It then appears, that the lack of specific international law, has allowed for the individual application by countries based on varying principles in an all-out free-for-all.  As the transition off of the traditional battlefield and into cyberspace continues, it likely is a matter of time before changes to international law and treaties become established to define the rules of engagement.


Iran has, and continues to be a major contender within the realm of cyber-attacks world-wide.  Although these attacks generally focus on retaliation for perceived threats surrounding such things as sanctions against its nuclear ambitions or ideological belief of religious incursions by the West, they have focused on various industries including oil, energy, and universities and where undefined international law fails to mitigate future threats.

With the more recent international sanctions, Iran has also been delivered economic woes at home.  The increased unemployment rates have enabled more educated Iranians to seek involvement in a government that appears to be alt-religious instead of unified-Persian as the availability of electronic communication has become more prevalent.  Until international law is defined and the stability of the Middle East region improved, cyberwarfare on both sides of the equation will continue to be prevalent and part of daily life.


Anonymous. (2018, June). Nine Iranians charged with massive cyber theft. Computer and Internet Lawyer. 35. 24-25.

Anonymous. (2012, December 12). Hype and fear; cyber warfare. The Economist. 8814.

Baldor, L.C. (2012, October 12). U.S. warning reflects fears of Iranian cyberattack. The Ledger.

Copley, G.R. (2009, June). The Iranian political battleground:  A breakout case for cyber, psycho-cyber, warfare. Defense & Foreign Affairs’ Strategic Policy. 9.

Corbin, K. (2013, March 21). Iran is a more volatile cyber threat to U.S. than China or Russia. CIO. 25.

DeMarche, E. (2019, June 24). Iran says latest U.S. sanctions ends ‘channel of diplomacy forever’. Retrieved from

Jacobson, M.R. (1998). War in the information age:  International law, self-defense, and the problem of ‘non-armed’ attacks. Journal of Strategic Studies. 21. 1-23.

Maitra, A.K. (2014, November 28). Offensive cyber-weapons:  Technical, legal, and strategic aspects. Environmental Systems & Decisions. 35. 169-182.

Payne, C., Finlay, L. (2017). Addressing obstacles to cyber-attribution:  A model based on state response to cyber-attack. The George Washington International Law Review. 49. 535-568.

Perlroth, N., Sanger, D.E. (2013, May 27). Wave of computer attacks in U.S. traced back to Iran. International Herold Tribune.

Stavridis, J. (2016, October 24). The Iranian paradox. Time. 188. 33.



About the Author(s)

Ben Anderson is a researcher, critical infrastructure protection specialist, and former law enforcement officer.  He is pursuing a Master’s of Science in Information Security and Assurance from Norwich University where he is specializing in Cyber Crime and Critical Infrastructure Protection.  His research focus includes cyber terrorism and cyber warfare methodologies, critical infrastructure standards and compliance, as well as the electric utility industry.