Iran: Hitting Back with a Keyboard

Iran: Hitting Back with a Keyboard

Let’s say that right now you are Iran. The US has torn up a deal you were abiding by, and reimposed crippling sanctions that are exacerbating a currency crash and broader economic crisis. You’re in no mood to roll over for Uncle Sam – Washington’s demands are beyond the pale –  but what are you gonna do about it?


You have options. You could threaten oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz, or encourage your proxies in Yemen, Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East to step up their attacks against US allies and interests. But why go to all that trouble and expense when you could inflict pain on the Great Satan and its friends with a tap or two on a keyboard and the click of a mouse?

Iran has done cyber-damage before. Back in 2012 Tehran launched a series of cyberattacks against the US and Saudi Arabia as tensions were on the rise. This time around, Tehran will almost certainly be tempted to do the same. Here’s one reason why it might not want to do anything too provocative – along with two reasons why you should be worried anyway.

First, the “good” news: Unlike the Obama Administration, Donald Trump and his hawkish national security adviser John Bolton are almost certainly ready (if not actively itching) to respond ferociously to any Iranian cyberattacks, particularly if they cause any serious damage to people or property in the US. Iran knows this and may reason that it’s better to go after something in the neighborhood and relatively low-risk, like Saudi companies’ business networks, rather than to invite US wrath by going after something more sensitive in Uncle Sam’s own house, right?

But here’s where things get dicey: Cyber weapons aren’t like missiles that you can just stockpile and pull out whenever you want. Hackers’ access to networks comes and goes as their targets discover and defend against new threats. So if Tehran thinks it has a shot on goal, it might feel pressure to take it. Iran will step carefully, but it may be more likely to consider a riskier attack on a higher value American target – if the opportunity presents itself.

There’s another problem: Cyber weapons can be hard to control once you make the decision to use them. As an example, when suspected Russian hackers hit Ukraine with a big ransomware attack last year, the malware – which had beenaugmented with weapons-grade code stolen from the US National Security Agency -- spread well beyond its initial target. It caused billions of dollars of damage and wiped out IT systems in dozens of countries, including Russia. No one was killed. The attack didn’t destroy the computers that regulate control systems in a power plant or take down the intensive care unit of a major hospital. But next time might not be so lucky.

Put together, Iran’s incentive to retaliate while it can, and the potential for unintended, even deadly, consequences adds a dangerous new dimension to an already-tense standoff.

Demography is destiny. That ominous-sounding pronouncement, credited to French philosopher Auguste Comte, is today taken to mean that a nation's fate depends on the youthfulness of its population. For a poor country to become rich, it needs lots of young people ready to work, to support those too old or too young to work, and to pay taxes. This is called the "demographic dividend."

That's an important part of China's success story. Over the past 40 years, more than one billion people have emerged from poverty in China. Waves of young people surged from the countryside into cities to work in factories. The state invested in education, and wages helped young workers, and then their children, go to school. The state also began a drive to develop the technologies of the future, by any means necessary. In China, once dirt-poor, hundreds of millions have created a middle class.

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Get insights on the latest news about emerging trends in cyberspace from Marietje Schaake, International Policy Director at Stanford University's Cyber Policy Center and former European Parliamentarian:

This week we talk about one of my favorite topics, regulation. Laws are often framed as a barrier to innovation and not always recognized as a key enabler of freedoms and the protection of rights. But what's more is that regulation is a process, and one that can have tons of different outcomes. So, being in favor or against regulation doesn't mean anything. Except that those who oppose any changes are apparently benefiting from the status quo.

Is the world at a tipping point when it comes to regulating big tech?

And I would say absolutely. The outsized power of big tech is recognized more broadly because the harms are so blatantly clear. Harms to democracy, public health, but also to fairness in the economy are all related to the outsized power of unaccountable and under-regulated big tech. Now, what's significant is that this debate has finally hit home in the United States after it was already recognized as a problem in many other parts of the world.

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"What would you do to try to move this battleship in a new direction? It requires public policy levers. And it requires … some pretty serious legislation." Ian Bremmer spoke with Kolbert, an award-winning journalist and author and staff writer at The New Yorker, on a new episode of GZERO World, airing on US public television.

Watch the episode: Can We Fix the Planet the Same Way We Broke It?

Not everyone thinks that President Biden's decision to pull all US troops out of Afghanistan by 9/11/21 is a good idea. Conservative Congressman Mike Waltz (R-FL), a combat-decorated Green Beret with multiple tours in Afghanistan, thinks that the US still needs to maintain a small presence in the country to avoid incurring "massive risks." In a spirited discussion with Ian Bremmer on GZERO World, Waltz, who served as counterterrorism advisor in the George W. Bush administration, argues, "The next 9/11, the next Pulse Night Club, which is right on the edge of my congressional district, the next San Bernardino, that's now on Biden's watch. He owns it with this decision." Their conversation is featured in the upcoming episode of GZERO World, which airs on US public television starting Friday, April 23. Check local listings.

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To address this inequity some stakeholders are pushing hard for waivers to intellectual-property (IP) rights through World Trade Organization trade rules so that manufacturers in poorer countries can make their own vaccines locally. India and South Africa have been leading the charge, which would essentially mean that deep-pocketed pharma companies like New York-based Pfizer, for instance, would have to hand over the keys to the kingdom, allowing local companies in New Delhi and Johannesberg to make generic versions of their vaccines.

Unsurprisingly, the debate has gotten fiery, with passionate arguments emerging both for and against.

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Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden, shares his perspective on Europe In 60 Seconds:

What are the Russians up to against Ukraine?

We simply don't know, except the fact that they're concentrating a huge amount of military forces. And you don't do that for nothing or for fun. They are there for a purpose, to have pressure or to undertake limited to larger operations. We simply don't know. And when Putin delivered his State of the Union speech the other day, he didn't say a thing about this. They are now talking about withdrawing the forces. But let's wait and see. They have talked about withdrawing forces from Syria for a long time, but we haven't seen that as of yet.

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