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Israeli Cyber-War Against Iran

The leaked Israeli government document I published last week is a sales pitch outlining Israel’s putative attack on Iran.  It would begin with a massive cyber-attack:

“The Israeli attack will open with a coordinated strike, including an unprecedented cyber-attack which will totally paralyze the Iranian regime and its ability to know what is happening within its borders.  The internet, telephones, radio and television, communications satellites, and fiber optic cables leading to and from critical installations—including underground missile bases at Khorramabad and Isfahan—will be taken out of action.”

Richard Stiennon, a Forbes technology writer who specializes in cyber-security, wrote a short piece for the magazine that discussed the cyber-warfare elements of the plan.  Unlike those Israelis planning this strike, Stiennon is worried about the unforeseen consequences of such sabotage and mayhem:

The chances are pretty high that the teams involved in creating Stuxnet and Flame and maybe Duqu and Gauss would be in a position to architect such an attack against Iran’s infrastructure. Along with severing fiber entry points, Iran’s communication could be shut down. But what happens to the Internet when such an attack is launched? Will the weaponized malware work perfectly and not escape to the rest of the world? This document pretty much describes all-out war with Iran. In such a gamble do the planners even care about minor disruptions to power grids in the rest of the world? Or does that not carry much weight in the balance? This specter of an Israel-Iran war, whoever starts it, has become a looming threat for IT and communication systems everywhere.

In other words, if/when Israel attacks Iran we will have the first all-out use of cyber-warfare as part of the arsenal of a conventional war.  Until now, such assaults have been somewhat carefully modulated.  No state has tried to maximize the destructive capabilities of these weapons.  In the next war, this will likely not be the case.  Why?  Because Israel does not wage limited war.  When it fights it throws everything (except perhaps nukes) into the effort.  It spares no one on the opposing side.  An attack on Iran is likely to be very similar to attacks on Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2009, except that if anything Israel will mount an even more comprehensive effort to decimate Iran than the previous targets.

Another portion of the Israeli document mentions that it will use a carbon filament technology to cause massive short circuits in the electrical transformers in Iran.  This in turn will turn the nation’s electrical grid into a shambles.  Here are Stiennon’s comments on possible unanticipated repercussions from this tactic:

Carbon whiskers unleashed to disable transformers??? Oh yes. I remember my very first boss, Curt Vail, who had introduced computer structural analysis at Boeing,  relating the story of Boeing engineers who were developing carbon whiskers, amazingly strong and stiff materials. Somehow just a few grams got released into the atmosphere and shorted out transformers throughout the Pacific Northwest. I do not like the idea of kilograms of this stuff escaping the target area and even reaching the upper atmosphere. It could be decades before power grids could be free of this menace.

Here are two credible threats to global systems: a massive cyber attack that could spread to the rest of world and interfere with SCADA systems everywhere and carbon whiskers that could short out power transmission systems. Defenses against both should be put in place as quickly as possible.

Just as Stuxnet escaped the bounds of its intended targets and infected computers throughout the world, the cyber-security analyst warns that a great number of these vaunted systems of attack against Iran could rebound against innocent third parties.  In this way, such a war will rapidly escalate from an intramural fight between two nations, to a potential regional maelström.  Israel will care little for peripheral damage it causes to neighboring countries like Azerbaijan.  Only if it causes damage to nations as powerful as itself will it be concerned.  This likely means that only the U.S. could rein in such an attack.  But given that the U.S. was Israel’s partner in the creation of Stuxnet, Israel could just throw it back in our face and say: “when it was convenient to your interests you joined with us in creating a cyber-weapon. But now that it’s not, you hypocritically call for us to stop.”  And Israel would be right.  That’s why cyber-warfare is a slippery slope and why it should be regulated or prohibited under international law.

There will come a time when a cyber-weapon will destroy a power plant or cause an explosion in a building.  Many will die if that happens.  Only then will we turn around, as we do here in the U.S. after the latest gun-induced massacre, and wring our hands and wonder why we didn’t do anything to address this menace.

{ 26 comments… add one }
  • John August 22, 2012, 3:10 AM

    Dear Richard,

    I suggest you to read the September 2010 research entitled “Cyberwarfare and its damaging effects on citizens”.

    The paper analyzes for the first time the damaging effects, in terms of loss of human lifes, that an hypothetical cyber-war or individual acts of cyberwarfare could cause to citizens of a nation under attack:

    • Joel August 22, 2012, 5:02 PM

      What would you rather have, fallout from a cyber attack or nuclear fallout? Be honest.

      • Richard Silverstein August 22, 2012, 6:26 PM

        That’s pure sophistry and not a serious argument. YOU be honest (hint: you’re not). That’s not an either-or argument as you make it out to be. That’s pure reductionism, reducing complicated issues to black & white & your side is white.

  • Tibor August 22, 2012, 7:48 AM

    This hits the nail on its head and that is why it is imperative on the US to stop Iran and not leave Israel do that. Israel is too small not to use all what it has (apart from nukes and even that only as long as its own survival is not endangered) and that indeed may have wider repercussions.
    In a sense this repeats the WW2 scenario, where Jewish physicists that were essentially pacifists in their personal inclination, participated in developing The Bomb so as to save the remaining European Jews from extermination and the still free democracies – the US in particular. In short, a Damocles Sword has been created that hangs over everybody and will do so for the indefinite future.
    There is little question that the cyber-war tools developed by Israel to defend itself against the existential threats from Iran that it senses, even if executed perfectly and not harm anybody else (a feared here) will still later on become a new overall threat to everybody and for the indefinite future – as The Bomb and in addition to it.
    It is not possible thus “to isolate” the threat to Israel – “it is their problem, we are OK” (as was the case with the Jews in WW2 and even there turned out post-factum to be erroneous because of the ensuing Bomb). Technology has made us inhabit all the “same boat”.

    • Mary Hughes Thompson August 22, 2012, 8:59 PM

      Just who is supposedly threatening Israel? Inquiring minds want to know.

      • Davey August 22, 2012, 9:29 PM

        But Mary, Israel is always threatened…because it is always threatening. Israel invariably blames its victims and this time will no different. The people suffering sanctions now and probably ferocious bombing later are responsible because they wish to defend themselves from Israel. Get it? It is psychopathic, not politics.

  • Castellio August 22, 2012, 12:50 PM

    Tibor, how about going back to the 67 borders and accepting the offered 100 year truce from Hamas, knowing that whatever the Palestinians negotiate will be honored by Iran, and knowing that Israel will then be recognized by all of the Arabic and Islamic states? Or how about the one-state with equal rights for all non-Jews?


    Is it better to get the US to wipe out all resistance to a greater Israel designed for Jews only? How long do you think that will take? How many need to be killed, do you imagine? And where will that lead, do you think?

    Just asking.

    • Tibor August 22, 2012, 1:51 PM

      Castellio, by all accounts I cannot see that the scenarios you raise are where things are heading. In particular, going back to “the past” is tempting, in our individual life or as with collectives, when difficulties are met but it is almost always delusional. Specifically in this case things have changed so dramatically in just about all relevant realms that it is of little use to resort to past configurations – they can`t help. Importantly, “the solution” cannot anymore be restricted to the old parties and how they share that miniature pie – no matter how you would try to do that it can`t work. Rather a leap forward is needed with fundamentally altered perceptions – as befits the grand changes that the region is undergoing now – within a much bigger scope.

      • Castellio August 22, 2012, 3:30 PM

        And in your “fundamentally altered perceptions” is there any room for ‘traditional values’? Will Palestinians be given freedom in their homeland? Will Iranian lives be of any worth? Will the institutionalized racism of Israel be acceptable in the US as well?

    • Joel August 22, 2012, 5:05 PM


      Do you really believe that Iran wants peace in the middle east? Doesn’t Arab-Israeli strife help Iran? I think so.

      • Richard Silverstein August 23, 2012, 1:33 AM

        Does anyone believe Israel wants peace in the ME? Doesn’t inter-Arab strife help Israel? I think so.

        • Davey August 23, 2012, 11:01 AM

          Israel’s ME foreign policy is simply war. The expansion and consolidation of the Jewish State has been based on war and most people would call this “Zionist,” though I know RS has a more subtle understanding.

          • levite August 24, 2012, 6:50 AM

            IF Israel wanted to totally expand in the ME>. they have and have had the might and resources to do so for decades, your agrument is hogwash.

      • Castellio August 23, 2012, 9:20 AM

        Yes, its clear that Iran wants peace in the middle east. And there is no evidence to the contrary. Their posture is, and has been for a long time, entirely defensive.

        On the other hand, they are well aware that Israel-America has initiated a war against them, and that sanctions are meant to wear down their industrial and military capacity prior to a military strike, as well as to create poverty and dissension in their population. They are aware that there are nuclear missiles aimed at all of their major population centres, and that they are daily threatened with attack by hugely superior forces currently stationed on enemy foreign bases that entirely surround their country.

        In short, get real. It’s Israel pushing hard for military action to support the aggressive covert actions currently in place, not Iran.

        • Davey August 23, 2012, 10:41 AM

          Well said. Stark reality for Iran and politics as usual for Israel.

        • Tibor August 23, 2012, 1:51 PM

          Well, Castellio, I grant you this – you are a master propagandist. Iran, with the Basij beating cruelly demonstrators, calling Israel a cancer and using hostility to it as a trump card to advance regional hegemonic ambitions, creating a state within a state in Lebanon which completely destabilized it and pushed it to unnecessary conflagrations with Israel, and in your description they come out as the victims as harmless lambs. Reminds me of the days of the old USSR, they perfected this art of turning a picture upside down

          • Castellio August 23, 2012, 3:35 PM

            Why lie to yourself, Tibor? Why suggest that Iran pushed Lebanon to “unnecessary conflagrations with Israel’ when it was Israel that repeatedly invaded and bombed Lebanon, and at the initial time said it was doing so to punish the Palestinians? How many Lebanese died that time? The answer is more than 20,000.

            As you also probably know, Hezbollah didn’t exist prior to the Israeli invasions of Lebanon. It was created as an indigenous popular reaction to Israel’s military might and wanton cruelty. Hezbollah has not invaded Israel, and can not. It can, however, act to defend itself when Israel again invades Lebanon. The destruction Israel has meted out to southern Lebanon is atrocious, and apparently Israel plans to do it again but this time ‘without restraint’.

            Is there now an alliance between Iran and Hezbollah. Yes. Iran provides it with arms. But does this mean that Iran threatens Israel or wants war with it? No. It means that elements of the Middle East are collaborating against the permanent Israeli threat to their existence.

            Lets be clear. Israel wants to bomb Iran to stop its support for Hezbollah, and wants to bring down the regime of Assad for the same reason. Iran needs to maintain its relationship to Hezbollah to help deter the much promised Israeli attack. Most people realize that a strong Hezbollah is a deterrent to an attack on Iran. Most people therefore realize that the desire to attack Iran has created a stronger Hezbollah, as Iran responds to Israeli threats – although apparently you don’t see the connection.

            It is not that I am any master propagandist, Tibor, and you have not disputed any fact in any of the sentences I have written. It is rather that you choose to live in a world where there are no consequences to Israeli actions: you are living an ahistorical reality. When you begin to see the consequences to Israeli military actions not only in Palestine and Lebanon, but also in Israel itself, as well as within the US , then I think you may well prefer to look for another way forward.

            Right now all you offer is ever larger wars abroad and more suppression at home.

          • Richard Silverstein August 23, 2012, 11:46 PM

            Regional hegemonic ambitions? You mean Israel don’t you? Creating a state within a state? You mean Israel don’t you with the creation of the SLA in Lebanon before Hezbollah even existed? Destabilizing Lebanon? Iran did that? What about the Lebenese civil war. Iran’s fault?

            Nice try at historical revisionism.

  • Davey August 23, 2012, 4:42 PM

    The devastation of Lebanon, twice over. One cannot imagine what “without restraint” might now mean. Does it mean that civilian centers will come under bombardment and aerial attack? Nothing new (or restrained) in that. It can’t mean the destruction of entire villages, complete. Nothing new in that.

    The evidence is clear that the Zionist state wants a “Greater Israel” on former Palestinian lands and that this should be a Jewish State (not a democracy!) and that there should be no violent blow back from any quarter, much less international censure. Palestine and Palestinians must disappear. Israel has chosen this destiny without once seeking to ameliorate or compromise any of it in the interests of saving lives. I have to agree with Khameni, “Zionism must disappear.” There can be no peace as long it is alive and well-heeled.

  • Tibor August 24, 2012, 1:52 AM

    Guys, regardless of all those historical citations (you know and I know that it is easy to apply selectivity in that regard – just pick what fits your pre-set outlook and ignore the rest or even general context) are you really trying “to sell” Iran as a positive force? A military dictatorship cum a theocracy with serious restrictions on personal liberties and free speech (just imposed a partial ban on what women can study) – a long list (which has nothing to do with Israel with which it has no borders and no bilateral issue of conflict – just picked up a brawl because it saw benefits in that) that must be anathema to you all. Please reconsider.

  • Castellio August 24, 2012, 9:01 AM

    So now you want the US to bomb Iran because of its admissions policies for Universities?

    You don’t care about the Iranian people: you want to starve and bomb them. Unable to hold your own in a discussion of historical facts, you reduce yourself to pretending to want to bomb Iran for the sake of the Iranians.

    I consider your arguments truly pathetic.

    • Davey August 24, 2012, 11:42 AM

      Iran is no more a “hard sell” than Israel, which is very close to military dictatorship in any case. In the competition for world class badness, Israel objectively outdoes Iran many times over.

      But Castellio has it right: This is the serious matter of life and death, of war and destruction, and the case for it has to be compelling. Israel has great difficulty making that argument without (again) Holocaust language and the US cannot articulate anything at all without supporting an “ally.” Distaste for the revolutionary regime is hardly compelling, not when one considers that the pre 1979 regime was a CIA creation.

      So, why war?

      • Tibor August 24, 2012, 12:36 PM

        Davey, how many people you think you can convince to have a positive view of Iran by merely saying that it had a pro-Western regime 33 years ago? I am afraid I have to use Castellio phrase here, namely “I find your argument truly pathetic”

  • Castellio August 24, 2012, 2:49 PM

    But Tibor, that’s not what Davey said. He said that Israel has great difficulty making the argument to bomb Iran. He also said nothing about the current Iranian government, other than that it followed a regime imposed and supported by foreign force.

    Once again, you do not address the historical fact, but prefer to willfully misinterpret the intent of the post.

    • Davey August 24, 2012, 9:00 PM

      I certainly wasn’t trying to get anyone to LIKE Iran, but to DISLIKE the forces arrayed against that nation. Something is confused here. I’m not wild about the Iranian regime, but it is their revolution and they have handled it well, all things considered, and I admire Iranians for this.

      But, I can accept “pathetic” as I am powerless to do anything substantive other than complain here and elsewhere and support some groups. It ain’t much. It is sort of pathetic.

  • Davey August 24, 2012, 9:05 PM

    BTW — I followed this debate closely and I think the parties worked hard and did an admirable job on this blog of point/counterpoint. IMHO

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