The growing evidence that Iran was behind a number of recent cyber attacks against Western and Arab institutions has raised concerns in many quarters about how the Islamic Republic may employ its cyberwarfare capabilities in the future. Although there’s no way to be certain, in the short-term Iran’s likely to act with considerable restraint in the cyber realm in keeping with the larger “copycat” strategy it is using to retaliate against adversaries without escalating tensions further. Over the longer-term, however, it stands to reason that Iran will incorporate cyberwarfare into its existing military doctrine.
The recent cyber attacks against American banks and Middle Eastern oil companies are part of Iran’s broader strategy of closely emulating its adversaries’ attacks against the Islamic Republic itself. By replicating its adversaries’ tactics as closely as possible, Iran is able to retaliate against these powers while simultaneously signaling to them that it doesn’t seek to enlarge the conflict.
This “copycat” strategy was first evident in Iran’s assassination attempts against Israeli diplomats and their families in India, Georgia, and (presumably) Thailand in February of this year. In the India and Georgia incidents, Iranian nationals working under the Quds Forces unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) attached magnetic bombs to the underbelly of Israeli embassy cars in order to assassinate Tel Aviv’s diplomatic personnel (although in the Georgia case the explosive failed to detonate before being discovered and disarmed.) A similar plot was likely planned for Thailand before Iranian operatives prematurely set off one of the explosives while they were building them in a safe house in Bangkok.
European intelligence officials were, inexplicitly, aghast by Iran’s audacity, proclaiming, “Until recently it was possible to see why they [Iranian leaders] were doing what they have been doing. Now it has become very unpredictable. It’s very hard to see the logic behind” the February bombings. This statement notwithstanding, the rationale behind these assassination attempts was readily apparent: over the past few years numerous Iranian nuclear scientists have been targeted and killed in the streets of Tehran in attacks that Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad, is widely believed to be behind. Notably, the perpetrators of the attacks on the Iranian scientists often targeted their victims by attaching magnetic bombs to the bottom of their automobiles.