Tehran keeps its bag of pressures well stocked. While successfully on the make in its secret talks with the United States (see the separate article in this issue), Iran is building up its strategic assets on other fronts too. In particular, the Iranians want America and Israel to know they are now fully armed with the cyber weapons for repelling a potential attack by sophisticated drones on their nuclear installations.
Iran’s rulers are also concerned to boost the morale of a population growing fearful of a foreign attack on Iran’s nuclear sites hitting military bases situated near population centers and knocking out vital utilities such as power stations, dams, main highways and bridges.
1. To show it was on top of events, on April 18, Iran had its chief of staff Gen. Ataollah Salehi declare Persian Gulf areas “red zones” off limits to US warships. Iranian sources admitted that the two American aircraft carriers, the USS Enterprise and USS Abraham Lincoln and their strike forces, currently deployed in the Persian Gulf, were the objects of the prohibition.
Asked if the “red zones” had been breached, the Iranian general replied that the US vessels “respected them,” insinuating that the US Persian Gulf carrier fleet respected orders from Tehran. There was no comment on this from the US Navy, the Pentagon or the Obama administration.
Captured US drone the key to downing US stealth fighters?
2. Sunday, April 22, another general, Amir Ali Hajzadeh, head of the Revolutionary Guards reported that Iran had begun building a replica of the US surveillance RQ-170 Sentinel drone captured last December near the Afghan border after breaking its software encryption.
“I am giving you four codes so the Americans understand just how far we have gone in penetrating the drone’s secrets,” he said. “This aircraft is a national treasure for us, and I cannot divulge information about it.” He added the Sentinel “used the same US technology as in stealth fighters and bombers.”
The next day, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta dismissed Tehran’s claims to have recovered data from the Sentinel, saying, “Based on my experience I would seriously question their ability to do what they say they have done.”
But what Tehran had done was to rekindle the five-month old debate over how the spy drone was downed and by whom and whether it reached Iranian hands undamaged. Washington has claimed it was brought down by a technical malfunction. The dispute, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources report, far transcends a verbal skirmish between Washington and Tehran; it has far-reaching implications for the shape a potential strike on Iran’s nuclear installations will take and its outcome.
With drone secrets, Tehran would not need Russian S-300 missiles
If Gen. Hajizadeh spoke the truth about Iran’s reverse-engineering capability for copying the RQ-170 and cracking its secrets, it would mean that the Islamic Republic has got hold of the cyber warfare technology for downing US aircraft both manned and pilotless as well as Israeli bombers assaulting its nuclear facilities.
With these secrets in hand, Tehran would no longer need to procure Russian S-300 and S-400 air and missile defense systems, which the US and Israel have so far persuaded Moscow to withhold. It now has a cyber warfare capability for repelling a missile attack.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and Washington sources stress that the skepticism voiced by Panetta and other US figures about the Iranian claim does not rule out Tehran’s potential acquisition of a military cyber capability if attacked from Moscow or Beijing, in view of the following two considerations:
1. Washington has intelligence pointing to Chinese cyber warfare units bringing down the US RQ-170 drone just inside the Iranian border last December, which means that assistance from this source may be made available to Tehran in the future too.
And since the Obama administration made no response to the cyber assistance China rendered Iran for bringing the drone down, Moscow might feel free to go for points in Tehran by beating China to the draw with an offer of this sort of technological aid from Russia.
Washington has taken note of statements and comments from Moscow in the last two weeks about a Russian military buildup in the Caucasus and Caspian Sea region in readiness for a war pitting the US and Israel against Iran.
The non-attack on Iran’s oil industry computers
2. On Monday, April 23, Iran announced it had disconnected the Internet connections of its oil ministry and biggest crude export terminal on Kharg island following malworm attacks on their computer systems.
The semiofficial news agency Mehr reported that, although attacked by a virus and hackers, the facilities continued to work as usual. About 80 percent of Iran’s daily 2.2 million barrels of exported crude goes through the Kharg facility, off Iran’s southern coast.
Some Western circles said the virus attack on the Iranian oil economy was more extensive, shutting down up to 90 percent.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources say that both the Iranian and Western versions were exaggerated.
Tehran took advantage of a minor attack by groups of hackers using simple viruses to dramatize the threat to Iran’s oil industry and demonstrate to the population how well the regime was conducting the economy and oil industry in the face a cyber threat on top of sanctions. Tehran hoped to rally the people to the flag.
Western sources were taken in by this stratagem.
Tehran can be counted on to continue to come up with tricks and games to keep the West on its toes. (See the separate item on Tehran’s grab for the UAE Persian Gulf islands.)