Iran’s “Kitten” Cyber Hackers Poised to Strike If Trump Shreds Nuke Deal

Tehran poses an increasing cyber threat to the U.S., in light of the Trump administration’s allegations that Iran is violating United Nations Security Council resolutions tied to the nuclear agreement. Iran-sponsored hackers—dismissively referred to as “kittens” for their original lack of sophistication—are bolstering their cyber warfare capabilities as part of their rivalry with Saudi Arabia. But should President Donald Trump take further steps to scrap the nuclear deal, it could mean an uptick in Iranian state-sponsored cyber intrusions into American and allied systems, with the goals of espionage, subversion, sabotage and possibly coercion.

  • Since 2011, Iran has worked to establish itself as a prominent aggressor in cyberspace, alongside China, Russia and North Korea. Evolving from mere website defacement and crude censorship domestically in the early 2000s, Iran has become a player in sustained cyber espionage campaigns, disruptive denial of service (DDoS) attacks and the probing of networks for critical infrastructure facilities.
  • Iran wasn’t pursuing cyber capabilities with much urgency, experts say, until it was revealed  in 2010 that a joint Israeli-U.S. Stuxnet worm sabotaged nuclear centrifuges at Iran’s facility in Natanz. As the first-known instance of virtual intrusions resulting in physical effects, the operation demonstrated the potential effectiveness of such an attack and has informed much of Iranian cyber operations since.
  • Iran often has conducted disruptive cyber operations loosely in response to actions taken by others. It sees offensive cyber operations as an asymmetric but proportional tool for retaliation. For example, following the Stuxnet attack and the imposition of new sanctions on Iran’s oil and financial sectors in 2011, Tehran was suspected of retaliating in 2012 by releasing the Shamoon disk-wiping malware into the networks of Saudi oil giant Saudi Aramco and Qatar’s natural gas authority, RasGas. It also launched volleys of DDoS attacks against at least 46 major U.S. financial systems.
  • Iran commonly conducts its state-sponsored cyber operations behind a thin veil of hacktivism. From 2011 to 2013, a group calling itself the Qassam Cyber Fighters launched DDoS attacks that flooded the servers of U.S. banks with artificial traffic until they became inaccessible. In March 2016, the Justice Department unsealed indictments of seven individuals—employees of the Iran-based computer companies ITSecTeam and Mersad Company—for conducting the DDoS attacks — and intrusions into a small dam in upstate New York—on behalf of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the arm of Iran’s military formed in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian revolution.

While much of Iran’s cyber operations have been attempts at asymmetric disruption against its Gulf rivals, Israel and the United States, it has recalculated since the 2015 negotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran nuclear deal.

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