Cyberwar May Be New Tool In Iran's Arsenal

U.S. lawmakers have eagerly speculated about the threat that would be represented by a nuclear-armed Iran. Now they have a new concern: a cyber-armed Iran. Security experts are looking closely at Iran's cyber capabilities and considering whether Iran might be tempted to launch a cyber attack on the United States, possibly in retaliation for a U.S. or Israeli strike on its nuclear facilities.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Melissa Block. Intelligence officials and lawmakers have long focused on the threat Iran would present if it had nuclear weapons. Now, they have a new concern - Iran armed with cyberweapons. Security experts say Iran can not yet match the cyber capabilities of the U.S., China or Russia, but as NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, they're getting closer.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: If the Iranians were to launch a cyber attack against someone else, they'd be using a weapon that has already been used against them. Three years ago, some country - the U.S. and Israel are the prime suspects - deployed the Stuxnet worm against Iran. It was a sophisticated tool. Basically, it programmed a computer so that it would tell a machine to destroy itself.

Cyber security expert, James Lewis, speaking this month at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said an Iran/U.S. cyber conflict could be seen as a grudge match.

JAMES LEWIS: The Iranians feel like they owe us one in cyberspace. They feel like we were responsible for Stuxnet. You know, they're going to look to get the capabilities. They're going to calculate whether it's safe to do something in the U.S.

GJELTEN: Those are the key questions, whether Iran has significant cyberwar capabilities and whether it could get away with using them. If the United States were to bomb Iran and the Iranians wanted to retaliate in cyberspace, the most damaging thing they could do would be to use a computer weapon to knock out the U.S. power grid or some other piece of the infrastructure, much like Stuxnet did to an Iranian nuclear facility.

But Dmitri Alperovich from the security firm CrowdStrike, doubts the Iranians could pull it off.

DMITRI ALPEROVICH: I don't believe that an attack in cyberspace by Iran will be destructive in nature. Destroying physical property through cyberweapons is an incredibly hard task. Stuxnet, if anything, was a demonstration of just how difficult it is to develop a weapon like that.

GJELTEN: Less challenging would be to hack into a U.S. bank. Alperovich says the Iranians could alter financial data so as to distort the accounting.

ALPEROVICH: If you can get into those systems and you can modify those records, you can cause dramatic havoc that can be very long lasting.

GJELTEN: The Iranians would have a motivation for an attack like that. The United States and its allies have imposed financial sanctions on Iran so severe they could be seen by Tehran as a form of economic warfare.

The idea of a cyber conflict between the U.S. and Iran is getting a lot of attention right now on Capitol Hill. Republican Congressman Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania chaired a committee hearing on the Iranian cyber threat just this morning.

REPRESENTATIVE PATRICK MEEHAN: As Iran's elicit nuclear program continues to inflame tensions between Tehran and the West, I'm struck by the emergence of another possible avenue of attack emanating from Iran - the possibility that Iran could conduct a cyber attack against the United States homeland.

GJELTEN: In congressional testimony earlier this year, the U.S. director of national intelligence, James Clapper, said Iran's cyber capabilities, quote, "have dramatically increased in recent years in depth and complexity." Beyond that statement, U.S. officials are careful not to say anything about Iran's cyber warfare potential, but they have long pointed out that if the United States were to come under cyber attack, it would be from a country that has both the capability to pull it off and the intent, the motivation.

Here's White House Counterterrorism Advisor John Brennan.

JOHN BRENNAN: We are mindful of that, a country that has both the intent and the capability. There is a requirement that we do everything possible to prevent any type of attack that could have national security consequences.

GJELTEN: China and Russia clearly have that capability to launch a cyber attack against the United States, but they don't yet have a good reason to do so. Iran might be another story.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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