Iran’s limited cyber capabilities enable it to launch attacks against the U.S. that would do more damage to public perceptions than actual infrastructure, a new study said.
The study was published Monday by the Atlantic Council, a pro-NATO think tank in Washington.
Previous cyberattacks on nation-states, like the Russian-backed one against Estonia in 2007, were not destructive and “caused a political crisis, not a military one,” the study says. In the same way, “a significant Iranian cyberattack against the United States would take on outsized importance, regardless of its technical sophistication.”
An anonymous cyberattack that shuts down the New York Stock Exchange for a few hours or cuts electricity to a major U.S. city could color public public perceptions during a military confrontation with Iran, the report says.
The Atlantic Council’s Iran Task Force and its Cyber Statecraft Initiative worked together on the study — an analysis of various cyber warfare options available to Tehran in the event of a confrontation with U.S. forces.
The study cites the U.S., some Western nations and Russia as “tier one” cyber powers. China is “a step behind them” at “tier two,” and Iran, which only recently has begun to develop an online warfare capability, is a “third tier” power.
Hackers widely believed to be backed by Tehran already have launched attacks over the past year that slowed or knocked offline the websites of major U.S. banks.
And North Korea has been blamed for a cyberattack using malicious software that paralyzed ATM networks and three TV broadcasters in South Korea in March.
“There is no reason to believe that Iran’s growing cyber army is any less capable than that of an isolated Asian rogue state with few IT graduates, limited Internet access, and a paucity of computers,” the study says.
Iran could easily hide its hand in any cyberattacks by mounting them via hackers-for-hire in other countries like Russia or Lebanon, the study says.
“Given Iran’s conventional weakness, cyber is an attractive alternative — the ultimate asymmetric weapon,” states the study.