Although neither the dam attack nor any of these other instances of hacking caused lasting damage, the collective impact upon the US economy is estimated in the tens of millions. Furthermore, these are only a handful of the recent incidents that have contributed to growing anxiety about Iran’s ascendant cyberespionage and cyberterrorism capabilities, and the associated willingness of the Islamic Republic to engage in asymmetrical warfare against its traditional Western enemies.
The overall response to these growing capabilities is presumably still being formulated. But the International Business Times reports that the seven recent indictments are part of the White House’s “name-and-shame” policy, aimed at bringing international attention to the nature and origins of newly established cyber security threats.
In addition to making known the names of these seven specific hackers, this week’s reports have also emphasized that they are known to have received financial backing and at least some level of operational support from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. That hardline paramilitary has also reportedly been the main driving force behind recent provocative ballistic missile tests, the January capture of 10 American sailors in the Persian Gulf, and also the domestic crackdown on journalists and artists that many commentators have witnessed in Iran especially in the past few months.
Furthermore, the IRGC has contributed substantially to the defense of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. By some accounts it has dispatched thousands of fighters to the Syrian Civil War, and regardless of the numbers it has helped to erect a defensive infrastructure that relies on Hezbollah and other Iran-backed Shiite militias, thus deepening Iran’s influence in the eastern Mediterranean country.
The hacking indictments may serve to increase awareness about the alternative forms of this influence, apart from a direct or indirect military presence. As The Tower points out, it is not only the seven Iranian hackers who have been subject to recent Justice Department indictments. The same authorities also levied charges this week against two Syrian hackers and a German accomplice.
These individuals also reportedly enjoyed ties to the IRGC, and even worked in concert with Iranian hackers, using phishing schemes to secure information from or access to the servers of Western entities and then extort money from them, to be delivered to the war effort in Syria. The Tower reports that the indicted Syrians were members of an organized hacking ring called the Syrian Electronic Army, and that this is only one of a number of hacker groups that have been operating as Iran proxies, with support from the IRGC.
It remains to be seen whether this week’s reported indictments will lead to further efforts to expose and break up these Iranian and Iran-backed hackers. But it seems clear that the US government and other Western entities are making a number of efforts to confront Iranian threats and enforce international restrictions upon the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy activities.
This can be seen, for instance, in a report from Today Online indicating that the US has charged Iranian-American businessman Ahmad Sheikhzadeh with seven charges related to sanctions violations and money laundering, based on his activities as a consultant to Iran’s mission to the United Nations. The defendant reportedly worked with at least three accomplices to illicitly funnel money from US businesses to the Islamic Republic.
Additionally, Reuters reported on Thursday that the US had also blacklisted two Iranian companies and two British businessmen over two separate issues of Iran’s foreign policy. In the first place, the Iranian companies represent new targets for sanctions on the Iranian ballistic missile program, which they are accused of helping to support. This has become a particularly hot button issue in the wake of three ballistic missile tests earlier this month, which the US State Department has described as being in tension with a UN resolution calling upon Iran to avoid such tests and related ballistic missile development.
In the second place, the blacklisting of the British businessmen was reportedly meant as punishment for their doing business with Mahan Air, an Iranian commercial airline that remains under US-led sanctions as a result of its ties to the IRGC and its ongoing use as a means for smuggling Iranian fighters and weapons into Syria.
This veritable flurry of reports about US enforcement measures provides some contrast to the longstanding and often severe criticisms of the Obama administration’s Iran policy. Beginning with the nuclear negotiations, congressional Republicans and some Democrats have accused the White House of excessively soft dealings with a traditional enemy, or even outright appeasement. In the wake of various perceived Iranian provocations, many of those critics have called for expanded sanctions and other unilateral enforcement measures.
The above measures may be seen as at least a partial response to those calls, but it is quite certain that more such calls will follow, especially if Iran does not shift away from recent behaviors. The US Congress continues to scrutinize that behavior in many areas, including the influence of Iran and its proxies over the broader Middle East.