Hostile Middle Eastern power says it successfully defended itself against the supposed cyberattack

On Christmas Day, Tuesday December 25, a top Iranian military official held a press conference claiming that his nation had endured an attack by the U.S. and Israel.  The attack, which allegedly targeted the nation's power grid, is said to be derived from the industrial malware Stuxnet.

I. A Delicate Balance

Iran is a key power broker in the Middle East.  Its hostile stance to Israel and the U.S. have led to sanctions and an embargo on its oil exports, however, Iran is a key oil supplier to China.

The U.S. and Israel have leveled strong accusations against the increasingly high-tech Islamist republic in recent years.  Iran is accused of funneling rockets and money to Palestinian militants, whose official charter demands their ranks to drive the non-Muslims out of Israel to bring on Judgement Day [source].  Iran was accused of acting as a key catalyst of the recent escalation in rocket attacks against Israel.

Gaza Strip -- thank you Iran
Militants in the Gaza Strip recently put up billboards thanking Iran for its
"support" of their Islamist militants. [Image Source: AP]

Additionally, the U.S. and Israel have been very concerned about Iran's nuclear development program.  While Iran defiantly defends its right to develop nuclear capabilities, and claims its program to be peaceful, U.S. and Israeli intelligence claim its end objective is to develop deadly nuclear weapons.  

Iran was allegedly linked to recent inter-continental ballistic missile tests in North Korea, raising fears that the nation could one day develop nuclear strike capability with a long enough range to target the continental U.S.

II. Cyber-Attacks Allow U.S., Israel to Skirt Barriers Against Attacking Iran

While China's close relationship with Iran has largely stifled the possibility of further United Nations sanctions or direct attacks, it does not appear the the U.S. and Israel are sitting idle.  There is a wealth of evidence that the U.S. and Israel have instead turned to cyberattacks as a covert route to damaging the hostile power.

Intimate details of the program, dubbed Olympic Games, first emerged over the summer in The New York Times.  Allegedly personally authorized by Presidents George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, the effort leveraged sophisticated malware dubbed "Stuxnet", "Duqu", and "Flame".

Flame was reportedly designed primarily as a watcher, to gather intelligence.  Stuxnet's purpose was more bold -- it sought to infect and damage Iran's stock of aged Siemens AG (ETR:SIE) P-1 centrifuges, which Iran allegedly acquired from Abdul Qadeer Khan, Pakistan's nuclear chief.

Iran nuclear facilities
The attack on the centrifuges was preceded by a worm that mapped Iran's networks.  President Bush authorized these early attacks. [Image Source: CBS]
Written by the Israeli Defense Forces' Unit 8200, Stuxnet enjoyed a tremendous initial success.  It broke 1,000 out of 5,000 centrifuges, according to reports, and for a time tricked the Iranians into thinking they were simply the victims of misfortune.

But Stuxnet's secrecy was punctured when an update introduced an error, causing the malware to go from only infecting machines in a narrow Iranian target range to infecting machines worldwide.  As security experts took note of the spreading digital epidemic and the curious centrifuge directives contained therein, Iran finally became aware that the failures had been no mere coincidence -- it had been sabotage.

More recently, the U.S. and Israel were accused of attacking Iran's oil industry in an effort to further destabilize the nation's troubled economy.

II. New Attacks Allegedly Look to Cripple Power in Key Port

In a speech on Tuesday Provincial civil defence chief Ali Akbar Akhavan added to the list of accusations, commenting, "The Bandar Abbas electricity supply company has come under cyber attack [on December 25].  But we were able to prevent its expansion owing to our timely measures and the co-operation of skilled hackers."

Bandar Abbas
[Image Source: BBC News]

Bandar Abbas is a key port city for Iran, by which it ships goods to China and North Korea.

It's virtually impossible to know for sure whether the claimed attacks are real, or just an effort by Iran to further glorify its fledging cyberwarfare units, while villainizing its enemies.  The line between reality and fiction has become muddled in recent months.

On the one hand a wealth of evidence suggests that the U.S. and Israel are actively attacking Iran with malware.  U.S. President Barack Obama, when questioned on the topic, commented that his nation would do "what we must" to prevent Iranian nuclear capabilities.

On the other hand, Iran's accounts in recent months of perpetual cyber-barrages and its claims that it has repelled many of the assaults have at times been questioned by security experts.

IV. An Act of War?

If the U.S. did attack Iran's power-grid it would be perhaps the first real-world test of an attack which U.S. intelligence has long warned of.  

The Chinese have reportedly been working on power grid attack capabilities, with some reports suggesting hackers affiliated with the Chinese government have implanted scripts into machines in the U.S. power grid.  However, there have been no reports to date of China actually using such attacks on the U.S. and its allies.

If the Iranian claims are authentic, it raises serious questions for Congress.  The U.S. Department of Defense recently released a set of guidelines, which label such attacks as an act of war, if used against the U.S.  

Obama, tired
Did President Obama "declare war" on Iran without Congressional permission; that's a key question in the wake of new allegations from the Iranians. [Image Source: AP]

The question is if the reverse applies -- if U.S. power grid attacks on its enemies are also acts of war.  If so, the effort could raise awkward questions for President Obama.  While both major ruling parties in the U.S. support efforts against Iran, it is unconstitutional for the President to declare war on another country without the permission of Congress.

Source: BBC News

"I'm an Internet expert too. It's all right to wire the industrial zone only, but there are many problems if other regions of the North are wired." -- North Korean Supreme Commander Kim Jong-il

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