Cyber attack 'could derail Iranian nuclear agreement,' war game finds

A "complex low signature cyber attack, which leaves behind no clear trail, could create regional uncertainty, and increase existing distrust between Iran and the US."

June 24, 2015 05:23
2 minute read.
Cyber hackers [illustrative]

Cyber hackers [illustrative]. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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A deal between world powers and Iran over the Iranian nuclear program can be torpedoes by a powerful cyber attack, a war game carried out by SIMLAB, which is the simulation lab of Yuval Ne'eman Workshop for Science, Technology & Security at Tel Aviv University.

The war game, held on Monday to kick off the start a Tel Aviv University cyber conference, resulted in the conclusion that a "complex low signature cyber attack, which leaves behind no clear trail, could create regional uncertainty, and increase existing distrust between Iran and the US, leading to a collapse of nuclear talks."

During the game, a cyber attack, launched by a player representing Qatar, resulted in false information about a secret Iranian uranium enrichment plant being planted within real information. The misleading account also contained claims that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayathollah Khamenei issued an order to increase the speed of activities at the fabricated nuclear site. The mixed false and true information was then leaked by the cyber attacker tto the international community, triggering a crisis, and a breakdown in nuclear talks.

Dr. Haim Assa, Chairman of SIMLAB, said the game began with an intelligence leak of falsified information, about covert Iranian centrifuges facility that Tehran had sought to hide, in violation of all agreements with the international powers.

The 'leak' soon turned into public knowledge around the world, and triggered a chain reaction of international events, without the information ever being confirmed.

The game saw distrust among allies as well; the US suspected Israel of being behind the leak, though the player representing Qatar was responsible.

The player representing the US demanded that Tehran allow inspectors in to check out the claims, and the Iranians rejected the demand, resulting in an end to negotiations. The Qatari cyber attackers achieved their aim - the collapse of nuclear talks - through a combination of incrimination, sophistication and creativity.

Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Ben Yisrael, Chairman of the Blavatnik Interdisciplinary Cyber Research Center (ICRC) at Tel Aviv university, said the rationale behind the simulation centered on a cyber attack that would thwart nuclear talks.

"It's completely clear that there are many elements opposed to the agreement coming together. What the players did not know in real time is that Qatar, with the assistance of hackers from Ukraine, is the one leaked tendentious and false information, pointing to an Iranian violation of the arrangement with the powers," Ben Yisrael said.

He added that in the simulation, "the unverified information caused a diplomatic-security storm that was powerful enough to wreck negotiations. The central conclusion is that a speck of uncertainty is enough to lead to a complete lack of control." The cyber element in the (mock) attack was critical, Ben Yisrael said, all the more so due to the distrust among the players.

Cyber attacks can lead to miscalculations, which could lead to an escalation, or even a full-scale war, the organizers found.

The organizers also noted "the complete lack of faith all players had in Russia," adding, "Our conclusion is that no one trusts the Russians. Throughout the game, the players all blamed [President] Putin for every negative development. In our game, Russia did nothing to justify being blamed, but this happened in any case, almost automatically."

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