Richard Bingley is the CEO of the London-based Global Cyber Academy, an independent education organisation dedicated to making technology safer.
Iran’s government often causes incumbent American presidents a headache during election year, although Donald Trump seems immune to diplomatic migraines.
Tehran’s response to Donald Trump’s decisive swoop to eliminate Qassem Soleimani might not be in a format we expect or understand.
After all, this was not a clandestine attack by an American secret agency practicing ‘plausible deniability’. It was a brazen and visceral public lashing by the White House.
Iran’s government has been shamed, not least by the litany of horrific and hypocritical violent operations that are being revealed.
Even among her few allies in Asia and the Gulf, Tehran is struggling to drum up much genuine sympathy for a cartel of uniformed gangsters who seemingly operated almost with a carte-blanche licence to kill beyond their own borders.
If any credit is to be had from this sorry episode, it is that the USA didn’t even bother with an ambiguous operation that could be batted away in the United Nations with suppressed smirks, nods and winks which follow covert operations.
Tehran therefore had no dilemma to struggle with as to whether to respond.
Although numerically strong, Iran’s military rank-and-file will be acutely aware that it will, in all likelihood, produce a feeble, disjointed performance on any battlefield.
Moreover, such a bedraggled spectacle – of high-tech machinery pummelling the futile billows of religious dogma – would occur under the full spotlight of 24/7 satellite television and mass digital voyeurism.
Two weeks of US, or Israeli-led, airstrikes, with Special Forces battering each flank, might usher in a final collapse for the regime.
Coupled with likely trade sanctions from some Gulf partners, then Russia and China sitting on their hands, there could only be one short-term winner if full-scale military confrontation broke out: the United States
Nevertheless, beneath her religious cloak-tails, Tehran’s boisterous government is often clever, agile and highly rational. Tehran practices – most of the time – a strong, survivalist, realpolitik.
For a prediction of what’s about to come, we should analyse the life of Soleimani himself.
Soleimani was widely described as an expert exporter of asymmetric warfare; the types of lethal guerrilla operations that can bring great humiliation, and even draw out precautionary fear and retreat, from larger military giants.
According to an array of intelligence reports, his bloody career was dedicated to producing a complex network of Shia-sympathetic fighter cells, who bombed and assassinated Sunni-dominated opposition groups and government personnel in neighbouring states, including Iraq.
Soleimani’s speciality was hybrid and deniable covert operations, which terrorised opponents and sent an intimidating signal or projection of power to Iran’s regional adversaries: principally Iraq’s fledgling government, Saudi Arabia, non-Shia of the Lebanon and, of course, Israel.
Hybrid means the mixing up of attack methods; in the general’s case, utilising good old traditional ammonium-nitrate-fuelled bombs that can liquidate an apartment block or garrison, but also increasingly deploying advanced technical capabilities: phone intercepts, target espionage and tracking, drone navigation, communications jamming, etc.
The second part of his modus operandi, technical sabotage, is likely to be Tehran’s chosen retaliation in the longer term.
Tehran will know that Trump is consistent only ever in his dramatic inconsistency. An excessive military provocation would make him likely to strike back hard, possibly to the point of attempting regime change.
Ringing in his ears will be two presidential scenarios. President Kennedy, whose personal approval ratings rose despite the unsuccessful 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion to topple Fidel Castro. Voters like ‘tough’ and they like ‘action’.
Second, Jimmy Carter’s attempt to negotiate the way out of post-revolutionary Iran for 70 trapped US embassy officials in 1979. The debacle lasted 444 days.
Carter’s cerebral, plaintive, attempt failed dismally. Ronald Reagan nailed him for his dithering and hand-wringing weakness, and duly defeated him in 1980.
Iran’s government knows all of this. As such, it has perhaps one of the most finely tuned asymmetric warfare strategies out there. As with her partly successful nuclear enrichment negotiations with Barack Obama (and the EU), Tehran thinks that it knows exactly how far to push back at an adversary, or camouflage a glitch, without necessarily provoking Washington to start pulling triggers.
Tehran’s retaliation will probably be in the form of escalating cyber attacks upon the USA, its infrastructure and its close allies. Namely, the UK, Saudi Arabia and the Dubai Emirate.
Because, even though the evidence of a cyber-attack stemming from Iran would be almost incontrovertible to insiders, general public audiences are still susceptible to claims that cyber space is too ambiguous. (Most of us are, thankfully, optimists, unless we see damning proof of something.)
Cyber-attacks are a little like taking a complicated fraud case before a jury. The evidence trail is often too difficult to prove, then the end result is perceivably not lethal. Thus, at present, few countries, if any, have gone to war over a cyber-attack.
However, let’s think back. Iran has the capability, in spades. In June 2017, MPs’ email accounts in the Houses of Parliament were successfully hacked.
Initial suspicion fell upon Russia, China, and North Korea’s infamous Lazarus cyber-crime group.
But after a four-month investigation, GCHQ (the UK government’s signals intelligence agency) pointed the finger squarely at Tehran.
In 2005, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard established a cyber army, which notably attacked Baidu, a Chinese tech firm, in 2009 and also Twitter. World-leading cyber analysts at the Israel Institute for National Security Studies ranked the IRG as the world’s fourth most powerful cyber army by 2013.
Moreover, if (for example) planned troop movements, or traffic planning systems, or hospital systems, power station systems, car GPS systems – many coordinated by automated and unchecked supervisory controls – are breached, then it simply is a fact of life that any decent cyber-attack upon a critical system will cause physical harm to citizens. And lots of us.
It’s worth recalling that North Korea’s cyber-attack using the WannaCry ransomware led to more than 1,000 NHS operations being cancelled back in 2017.
Attempts to patch up older and more vulnerable computer systems have been slow across the UK and other supposedly advanced western economies.
Unlike Israelis or Iraqis, we Brits simply do not believe that a devastating cyber-attack will happen to us.
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