As the first wave of the coronavirus outbreak appears to have crested, older patterns of conflict and foreign policy are re-asserting themselves. Iranian leader Khamene’i took the occasion of Qods Day to return to genocidal rhetoric. In so doing, he elicited harsh denunciation from Western capitals and an ominous warning against escalation from Jerusalem. Such an escalation appears to be well underway in cyberspace, with Israeli and Iranian militaries trading increasingly punitive attacks on one another’s infrastructure.
KHAMENE’I DRAWS CONDEMNATION AND WARNING
On May 22, during Iran’s annual Qods Day — observed virtually this year out ofcoronavirus concerns — Ayatollah Khamene’i declaredthat “the Zionist regime is a deadly, cancerous tumor in the region,” and added that “it will undoubtedly be uprooted and destroyed.” While this marked no notable departure from Tehran’s decades-old position, it succeeded in generating a chorus of opposition from Western capitals.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “We sharply condemn what the Iranian leadership said,” and, in a gesture to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s then-ongoing visit to Germany, notedthat “we are not in agreement on all questions, but we are friends, we are partners.” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo swiftly condemned Khamene’i’s remarks, tweetingthat “The United States condemns Supreme Leader Khamenei's disgusting and hateful anti-Semitic remarks,” and adding that “we know Khamenei’s vile rhetoric does not represent the Iranian people’s tradition of tolerance.” He also notedthat both Khamene’i and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif are effectively “echoing Hitler’s call for genocide.”
For their part, Israeli reactions signified Jerusalem’s view that Khamene’i’s speech was as much harbinger as provocation, and warned Tehran against kinetic escalation. Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Benny Gantz responded to Khamene’i’s address by notingthat “Israel faces major challenges across a variety of fronts. Khamene’i’s declaration that Israel is a ‘cancerous growth’ exemplifies this better than anything. As someone who is well versed in the Iranian file, and has prepared the IDF’s capacities in this area, I don’t advise them to test us.”
ISRAEL LAUNCHES CYBER COUNTERATTACK AGAINST IRAN
In the last week, intelligence leaks have confirmed an escalation of the cyber war underway between Israel and Iran. Several weeks ago, in early May, Iran’s heavily trafficked Bandar Abbas port terminal came to a sudden halt. The technical infrastructure which regulates the traffic flow all crashed at once, creating massive backups. Satellite photographs for several days thereafter depicted miles-long traffic jams on highways leading to the Shahid Rajaee port, as well as dozens of loaded transport ships detained in a waiting area off the coast.
Dmitri Alperovitch, the founder and former chief technology officer of CrowdStrike, a highly regarded cybersecurity firm, observedthat the strike on Bandar Abbas “is in line with Israeli policy of aggressively responding to Iranian provocation, either kinetically or through other means … Any time you see Iranian escalation, as with their buildup of rocket capacity in Syria, you have consistently seen Israeli retaliation with bombing runs on those positions. So it appears they have now applied that doctrine in cyberspace.”
This incident was both preceded and followed by Iranian cyber-attacks on Israeli infrastructure. In late April, the head of the Israeli Water Authority's security department, Daniel Lacker, reported, ”We have received a number of reports regarding a cyber attack on the... systems. No damage was reported during the incident." Subsequent analysis by Israeli cyber officials identified the malware as bearing the signature of one of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ offensive cyber units. One intelligence official, unimpressed by the calibre of the ineffective strike, described Iran’s cyber capabilities as “miserable.”
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