Iran establishes cyber HQ as shadow war continues

Ongoing concerns over digital threats from Israel, US prompt Revolutionary Guard to strengthen front in "soft war."

Iranians work on computer [illustrative] 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Caren Firouz)
Iranians work on computer [illustrative] 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Caren Firouz)
The joint chiefs of staff of Iran’s armed forces have established a new ‘soft war’ headquarters to counter threats from Israel and the US, particularly in cyberspace, the Iranian media reported on Saturday.
The Deputy Chief of Staff of Iran’s Armed Forces for Cultural Affairs and Defense, Brig.-Gen. Massoud Jazayeri said that Iran’s enemies were ‘very serious’ in their ‘soft war’ efforts against the Islamic Republic, according to Sepah News, the official public relations site of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). “Therefore, we too must develop an organized means to address the fight with the enemy in this arena,” Jazayeri said.
The military leader claimed that “hundreds of think tanks” in the US are monitoring Iran.
“The enemy is trying to dominate Iran in cyberspace. They are doing their utmost to create roadblocks to prevent Iran’s progress and success in cyber warfare,” Jazayeri warned.
The brigadier-general made his comments to a gathering of military personnel at a conference organized by the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) Basij Cyber Battalions in Tehran, the aim of which was to equip and mobilize Iran’s national media to combat what Tehran sees as the “soft war” threat, according to a report by IRIB itself.
Attending the conference were IRIB cyber space experts and members of Iran’s Cyber Council Committee and the Basij voluntary militia, IRIB reported. The Cyber Council Committee comprises seven “battalions” – politics, culture, social concerns, media, economics, women’s issues and Islamic jurisprudence – each of which deals with issues “targeted by the West in its soft-war against Iran,” IRIB said.
The development comes amid evidence that a shadowy cyber war between Iran, the US and Israel has intensified.
Over the past year, Israel and Israeli-linked targets have been hit by a wave of cyber attacks originating in Iran.
Last week, a group of pro- Iranian hackers nicknamed “Parastoo” – the Persian word for the bird “swallow” – claimed to have seized personal data from 200 scientists and officials linked to the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA). In a message that has been widely disseminated among pro-hacking websites in Iran, the group threatened to make its information public if “a Western-favored element entertains another sip of motorbike and magnet bomb cocktail,” alluding to allegations that Israel was responsible for assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists.
In July, researchers at computer security companies Kaspersky Lab and Seculert reported the discovery of a sophisticated malware attack, nicknamed Mahdi after the Shi’ite messiah, that mostly targeted critical infrastructure companies, financial services and government embassies in Israel as well as Saudi Arabia, the US and the United Arab Emirates. The malware was spread via an email containing a fake word document attachment that when opened executed a malware dropper. The malware is designed to spy on computers, including by sending screen shots and recordings back to the attackers. An analysis by Seculert revealed that Mahdi, likely originated in Iran.
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While is it impossible to know for certain whether the Parastoo hack or the far more serious Mahdi malware and the recent wave of network attacks against US financial institutions and Saudi oil companies were carried out by groups linked to the Iranian government, it is clear that Iran has stepped up its cyber warfare activities as an integral element of both its soft war defense and its asymmetric warfare strategy.
The IRGC stepped up its “soft war” rhetoric in the wake of the widespread riots and unrest that followed the country’s disputed 2009 presidential elections.
According to that rhetoric, “soft war” can include any attempts to create unrest in Iran, including psychological operations.
However, following the launch of the Stuxnet virus that Iranian officials said had infected computer systems and centrifuges used to enrich uranium, Iran has expanded its definition of “soft war” to include cyber warfare attacks.
Offensively, Iran uses cyber warfare in a similar manner to its other asymmetric strategies, which appear to include training its proxies to carry out attacks. Last month, Israel took its police department offline after discovering computers had been infected by a remote-access tool (RAT) allowing attackers to control machines in real-time. According to the US-based computer security firm Norman, those and other recent attacks originated in Gaza, home to Iranian- backed Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Norman described the attacks from Gaza as “an espionage operation [that] has been underway for at least a year.” Iran’s cyber warfare strategy is also designed to counter what it sees are attacks from the US and Israel.
In a recent report published on its new public website, Iran’s Intelligence Ministry accused the US and Israel of perpetrating a cyber war against Iran, including by using “advanced malware” against its nuclear facilities.
The report – intended for consumption by the Iranian public and widely disseminated by the Iranian media – relies on information and opinions given in various Western news reports and commentary on the issue of cyber warfare.
The launch of the new “soft war” barracks and the Intelligence Ministry report both come after Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast in May accused “illegitimate regimes” of “producing viruses and trying to use cyberspace,” in response to questions about whether the Flame computer virus had infected any of Iran’s computer systems.
In April, Iran said it had experienced a cyber attack against computer systems in its Petroleum Ministry and other oil-related state companies, which it said was part of a wider “soft war” effort by the US and Israel.
Defensively, Iran’s cyber strategy includes online propaganda, including via its state media, for both domestic and international consumption.
Tehran is engaged in a large-scale propaganda war with the West, not only on behalf of its own regime but also for its allies. In its most recent move, Iran’s Fars News, which is closely affiliated with the IRGC, opened a branch in Damascus to “provide a realistic view” of events in Syria and counter what Iran has termed Western propaganda against its closest regional ally, Syrian president Bashar Assad.
The Cyber Council Committee conference, run by IRIB, also comes after the US Senate voted unanimously in favor of enhanced sanctions against Iran, which include blacklisting IRIB and preventing others from doing business with the Iranian state media company and its chief, Ezzatollah Zarghami.
The European Union has already placed individual sanctions against Zarghami, whom it says has committed human rights abuses including by broadcasting forced confessions of detainees and show trials in August 2009 and December 2011.
Iran, however, says the new sanctions are a “flagrant attempt to try to silence the Iranian media.”
Referring to the sanctions against IRIB, Chief of Staff Jazayeri accused Israel and the US of using “soft war” techniques to try to create a political crisis in Iran, including via cyberspace.
Jazayeri said Iran’s enemies try to lure Iranians with promises of a “Western lifestyle.”
The head of the Cyber Council Committee, Ali Asghar Jafaari – who serves as a media adviser to Zarghami – said that cyberspace was “an important platform” through which the enemy tries to flaunt anti-Iranian [propaganda] and we will move to constrict them in this area, as we have done in other arenas.”